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Russia: Celebrants Observe Orthodox Christmas

Patriarch Aleksii II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, yesterday held a full day of services at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to mark Christmas Eve. The Russian Orthodox Church follows the old Julian calendar, which places Christmas on 7 January. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu reports on how Christmas celebrations have changed since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Moscow, 7 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As opposed to the Gregorian calendar, which marks the birth of Christ on 25 December, the old Julian calendar sets the date back nearly two weeks for Orthodox believers -- to 7 January.

Yesterday, Russia's 14,000 churches and 569 monasteries held Christmas Eve services for the country's Orthodox believers. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Aleksii II, held day-long services in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, one of Moscow's biggest and best-known churches.

"[We celebrate today] the arrival to the earth of the world's savior. In today's celebration we sing and profess that God is with us. If God is with us and we are with God we will overcome difficulty. Merry Christmas to you all! (Choir: 'God is with us.')"

The cathedral, consecrated in 2000, is a lavish reconstruction of the original church of Christ the Savior, which was ordered destroyed by Josef Stalin in 1931. Last night's service at the cathedral attracted a congregation of some 3,000 and was broadcast live on Russian state television. Russia's Interfax news agency reported that more than 200,000 Orthodox believers visited Moscow churches on Christmas Eve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spent Christmas Eve touring the historic religious and artistic towns of Russia's so-called "Golden Ring" east of Moscow, culminating in a late-night service in the Uspensky Cathedral at Vladimir, located 250 kilometers from Moscow. In a Christmas message released yesterday by the Kremlin press service, Putin praised the Russian Orthodox Church, saying, "Orthodoxy, which occupies a special place in Russian history, continues to play a paramount role in preserving the moral pillars of social life."

He added, "The Russian Orthodox Church, acting closely together with members of other traditional religions and creeds, is making remarkable efforts to improve the spiritual health of our compatriots, foster patriotism, and strengthen civil peace and accord."

For many Russians, the beginning of the Christmas celebration marks the end of a 40-day fast during which Orthodox believers avoid meat, alcohol, and dairy products. Today also marks the start of the so-called "svyatki," the holy week leading up to the celebration of Christ's christening.

Russians began to openly celebrate Christmas only recently. During Soviet times, Christmas celebrations were banned and New Year's became the main winter holiday -- with the fir tree, presents, and other traditional Christmas customs becoming a part of New Year's celebrations instead.

A number of Muscovites interviewed by RFE/RL said they were planning to celebrate Christmas because it is a nice occasion to gather with friends and relatives. Few said the holiday holds religious significance for them.

Valentina Denisova, a 24-year-old housewife out walking her newborn baby, said she will be spending Christmas lunch at her parents' house. Although she likes the celebrations, Denisova says that for her, Christmas is not a religious holiday: "I'm happy. I'm in a good mood. But from the religious point of view, this feast is not important for me. Maybe I don't have enough information about [Christmas]."

Fifty-year-old Marina Vlasova had already celebrated Christmas Eve with her friends. But she said she still feels that New Year's is a more important holiday.

"We didn't celebrate [Christmas during the communist era], but we celebrated New Year's. I know that the birth of Christ is a religious holiday, but we only began to celebrate it a short time ago," Vlasova said. "As far as I'm concerned, I spend [Christmas] with my friends, just symbolically. I don't feel the same way about it as people in some foreign countries, where Christmas is more important than New Year's. For us, New Year's [is more important]."

According to a poll by the Public Opinion Fund, about 74 percent of Russians intended to celebrate Christmas. The figure has grown over the past few years. In 1997, for example, only 57 percent of Russians intended to mark Christmas. A 2000 poll conducted by the fund found that some 52 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox believers. But many believers still say they don't feel obliged to honor all religious traditions like fasting or attending regular services.

For many Russians, the revived Christmas holiday is just another excuse for a holiday party. And the celebration doesn't stop there. Russians will mark Old New Year -- another inheritance from the Julian calendar -- on 14 January.