A Traditional Russian Christmas

Religious celebrations of any kind, including Christmas, were frowned upon by the Soviet State, and largely banned following the October Revolution of 1917. Fortunately this policy was changed in 1935, although the Festive season became a more secular celebration held in the New Year. Nowadays, Christmas in Russia is normally held on the 7 January, although many Russians celebrate it more traditionally on the 25th December as well, as many other countries do. The official Christmas and New Year holidays in Russia last from December 31st to January 10th.

Some of the old traditions have survived, such as the decoration of a tree, always an important part of the festivity. In the old days a tree would be brought in from the forest and decorated with paper lanterns, bows of ribbon, home-made crackers, spice breads, nuts and sweets wrapped in gold and silver leaf paper. Candles would be attached to the lower branches where they could easily be put out with a wet sponge on the end of a stick. The children would hang up a stocking from the chimney piece just as we do in the UK.

Where the Tsar and Tsarina stood in church.

Traditionally, there were Church services on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, also on 6 January. The congregation were expected to stand throughout the long service, even the Tsar and Tsarina, and the church would often be so cold that feet would go numb, as temperatures outside could be as low as minus 25 degrees. All servants of the household, including the governess, were expected to attend in their best clothes, complete with a warm hat and scarf.

Dinner on Christmas Eve generally consisted of twelve dishes to mark the Twelve Apostles. Roast pork was a popular dish, as was goose with apples, venison or lamb. This would be followed by fruit and jellies, candy and little cakes made with treacle or honey, ring-shaped biscuits. Plus a selection of dates, figs, walnuts and chocolates.

None of this delicious food was available during the revolution, however. In a diary I read of the period, written by a British woman, she said: ‘By way of a Christmas feast, we each had two little meat-balls yesterday. We had bought 5 lb of beef at 100 roubles the lb. We were wonderfully lucky getting it so cheap.’ But then on the 5th January she and her friend were ordered by the House Committee to clear snow from the street on the 6th and 7th from 1 to 3 p.m. Even worse, in Moscow people were ordered from their beds on Christmas night to clear the snow from the tram lines as fuel needed to be delivered, otherwise the lights would have gone out. So much for their celebrations.

Millie, who was governess to the children of the Countess Belinsky in The Amber Keeper, did her best to make Christmas a happy time, although she had more immediate problems on her mind.

Set against the backdrop of revolutionary Russia, The Amber Keeper is a sweeping tale of jealousy and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness. 

English Lake District, 1960s: A young Abbie Myers returns home after learning of her mother’s death. Estranged from her turbulent family for many years, Abbie is heartbroken to hear that they blame her for the tragedy. 

Determined to uncover her mother’s past, Abbie approaches her beloved grandmother, Millie, in search of answers. As the old woman recounts her own past, Abbie is transported back to the grandeur of the Russian Empire in 1911 with tales of her grandmother’s life as a governess and the revolution that exploded around her. 

As Abbie struggles to reconcile with her family, and to support herself and her child, she realizes that those long-ago events created aftershocks that threaten to upset the fragile peace she longs to create. 

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