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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Holiday Some In Russia Don't Want To Have

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian government decision to give people the day off on December 25 -- what Russians call "Western Christmas" -- has infuriated that country's nationalists and communists who see the celebration of this holiday as a threat to their national culture and way of life.

This year for the first time, the Russian government has declared December 25 a national holiday. It thus becomes the second Christmas because Russians are allowed to stay home from work on January 7, the day which by the Julian calendar, Orthodox and some other Christians will celebrate the birth of Christ.

Normally, few people object to getting more time off from their work, but this decision has sparked a firestorm of criticism by those who view the December 25 holiday as the latest and most insidious example of the spread of Western influence into Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Communist Duma member Vasily Shandybin is among those who most opposed. "Why should we copy Western holidays?" he asks. "We are Russians and we have our own culture. What can we get from the Americans? The Soviet Union had the best educational system in the world, but now they are trying to destroy it. They want our children to forget the meaning of patriotism and love for the motherland."

Another critic is Agrarian Party spokesman Pavel Yemelin. "All this Westernization is just a trick to make us forget our own religion and traditions. By hook or by crook, they are trying to turn us into Catholics. They failed to do it over the past one thousand years, but they've been succeeding in the past ten. We can't accept this; we want the Russian people to preserve their own holidays and their own integrity."

In reacting to the celebration of Western Christmas, such Russian nationalists are in fact reflecting a variety of deeper feelings, the hurt and anger many of them feel at the decline of Russian power and the influx of Western ideas and activities that for them are anathema.

Indeed, anger about this new holiday really began at the end of November when for the first time as well, Moscow arranged a visit by a Finnish Santa Claus and gave him at least equal time with Russia's Grandfather Frost.

Others view this new holiday as a positive step. Many merchants especially in Moscow and other large cities view the celebration of December 25 as another opportunity for merchandising. And some school officials have argued that the new holiday both will "let parents spend more time with their children" and signal Russia's interest in integrating with the world community.

That announcement has pleased young people including one 18-year-old student who said "the more holidays, the better." But many older people take a different view. In the words of one, "Who needs Western Christmas? Maybe it makes sense for rich people; it gives them another occasion to go to a nightclub or restaurant, to buy new clothes or go on a foreign trip. But for ordinary people, it doesn't mean anything."

Celebrating the birth of what both Western and Eastern Christians believe is the prince of peace has long been a source of controversy. For many centuries, Christians did not agree on just which date was the correct one. And in the century just past, the Soviet authorities were more inclined to persecute Christians than to give them the day off for either of the two dates now in question.

But this controversy in Russia over the celebration of the second, Western Christmas underscores not only how sensitive religious questions remain in that country but also the difficulties of changing the past and especially changing attitudes about it.