One thing that makes Belarus unique among former Soviet countries is that, having such a large amount of its post World War II population Catholic, it maintains Western Christmas as a holiday. This doesn’t occur in Ukraine or further east in Russia and Central Asia, where Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) is a direct replacement for Santa Claus. In this country, as a result, both the Western traditions of gift-giving on Jesus’ birthday, and the former Soviet traditions of gift-giving to celebrate the New Year, are followed.
This year was Baby Ben’s first Christmas, and the first that our family celebrated in a place of our own (a few blocks closer to the city center in Ostrovets, but still not far from Babushka’s home). However, being at that stage between 3 and 4 months old, he’s not apt to generate many memories from this year’s Christmas experience. He’s only just learned to laugh and respond to tickling, and all his efforts are going into learning to crawl. His big sister Albina, though, being between 4 and 5 years of age, is well in the period where her memories, especially Christmas memories, are going to carry her into adulthood. Baby Ben may momentarily appreciate the lights this year, but Albina is going to derive meaning from it all.
Last year, her Christmas wish list was pretty secure, having come from a Dora the Explorer episode (“a car, a guitar, and a robot”). This year, she had to put some effort into thinking what she wanted for Christmas. So we sat down at the kitchen table and drew up two letters, the first to Santa Claus, and the second to Ded Moroz. Both more or less sounded the same “How are you? I’m fine. I’ve been a good girl this year, and I know you give presents to good girls and boys.” Then in the fine tradition of Lucy van Pelt from the American cartoon “The Peanuts”, both letters went on: “For my presents, I would like…” followed by the list of gifts she hoped to see under the Yolka, or Christmas/New Years tree (limited to five, each). Both letters finished with: “I look forward to whatever you bring me. Love, Albina.” Her papa then took both pieces of mail with him to send off from Minsk as he went down to do some Christmas shopping.
A few days later on the Yule (Dec. 21), when the Christmas tree bazaar opened just downstairs, Albina and I went to buy our “yolochka,” completely undeterred by this year’s art school pageant song advising listeners that, “Christmas trees don’t get cold, so you don’t need to bring them home.” (Apparently a Soviet-era favorite…) We then spent the evening decorating the tree, an occasional distraction for Baby Ben, whose frustration with not being able to crawl right away frequently combined with teething pains to create the need to be held. At night, Albina and I read an early Christmas gift from Grammie Ro in the United States, the book, “The Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington,” apparently a chamber-of-commerce inspired work intended to use the holiday spirit to generate Washington state tourism. So with visions of Space Needles and flying fish dancing in her head, Albina’s excitement built.
However, by the time Christmas Eve arrived, three of the family ended up in hospital: cousin Alisa slipped and fell in icy mud, breaking her arm; her older brother Vlad ended up with having to treat an ulcer; and Albina’s babushka, Irina, had to go in for high blood pressure treatment. Alisa would soon be out with a cast on her right arm (only after having to go to Minsk, as apparently they don’t set dislocated broken bones here at Ostrovets), but Babushka (along with cousin Vlad) wouldn’t. And that was important as she normally coordinates the celebration of Christmas in the family (at least that part of it which stays up in this town for the holidays). So Marina, my wife, was left to coordinate Christmas Eve dinner for the first time.
I can’t say that Marina was completely ready for the task – it truly came as a surprise for her. For three days, she was kept busy arranging fish (fasting from meat is not just a Lent thing here, but also one observed every Friday and on Christmas Eve), getting hay for the table (the tradition is you put it under the table cloth to remember Jesus being born in a manger) as well as the communion wafer bread (to be broken and shared at the start of the meal), and, something new, securing a candle to be lit with “the light from Bethlehem.” In what sounds almost like the Olympic torch tradition, an unextinguished fire was brought north from the Palestinian territories by Christians and shared among parish members. As asked by the parish priest, we had the candle in the window during and after the dinner.
The meal went off without a hitch, though. Grandpa Ben phoned in on Skype from eastern Washington state just before its start, and visited briefly with Baby Ben and Albina, the latter of whom demonstrated a complete lack of ability to keep secrets and brought out her mother’s presents during the call. But after the call ended, and the extended mealtime prayer was offered, Uncle Andrey and his daughter Alisa joined us in celebrating Christmas Eve.
Following dinner, Andrey shared his gift for us, a two-zone clock that showed time in Ostrovets and Seattle. He was still putting it together, but it looked promising. Then, I was instructed to lead the kids into the bedroom, where they played hide-and-go-seek briefly, while Santa did his first run through the house. Marina then came in to say that they saw the old elf running off, but that he left some presents under the tree. Albina found one of her presents, a hedgehog stuffed toy and a book about hedgehogs, while Alisa found a speaker that displayed a light show on the ceiling (I’m starting to think a lava lamp will be in her future).
Meanwhile, I snuck off to read news online, and found the website for NORAD tracking Santa Claus. After it uploaded, I called the kids over to watch as Santa’s sleigh and nine tiny reindeer (eight plus Rudolph) flew across the Google Earth version of the Indian Ocean to Antanarivo in Madagascar. Andrey and Marina were sort of interested as well, particularly when Santa flew from Djibouti to the terrorist haven of Sana’a in Yemen. He then flew up to Mecca and Riyadh, noteworthy in not having a lot of Santa believers, before passing northward through Kuwait and Iraq to eastern Turkey. When he finally passed into former Soviet space in Armenia, I finally saw the way to get Albina, who didn’t seem to interested in going to bed any time soon, to get to sleep.
While telling her that Santa was being tracked from space, something sure to capture her interest (she dreams of being a cosmonaut), Albina and I watched the screen together while Santa first flew northward out of Russia to Finland and the northern part of Norway, and then back down to the Baltic States. When NORAD finally reported that he was leaving Riga for Vilnius, I yelled out, “He’s coming! He’s coming!” and sure enough, Albina jumped up. We quickly went to the bedroom and got changed over to pajamas. In record time, she finished with the bathroom, hand-washing, and tooth-brushing, and made it to bed “just in time,” before Santa could arrive and find her not asleep.
There are some events that you don’t really expect to give you that much satisfaction as that perfect moment when your little girl is cuddled up next to you, waiting for the Christmas presents to arrive. Consider her 9-year-old cousin Alisa, who is already at an age where she no longer really believes in Santa anymore. She still plays along to get presents, but she wouldn’t rush to bed so completely sure that the sleigh bells are going to ring any minute. Her younger sister Eva, age 6 (will be 7 in a couple more weeks), is likewise starting to grow wise to the Santa story, and would probably have ruined the moment with her new-found “wisdom” had she not been with her mother’s family down in the town of Ivye.
It is kind of sad when kids, for whatever reason, outgrow Santa Claus. There really is nothing as perfect as the assured optimism of a 4-year-old that something good is going to happen. As a parent, you just want to keep that beautiful optimism lit, like a candle flame from Bethlehem, for all of her days.