2018-01-31 / Front Page

Off the Beaten Trail: Holiday Season in 2017-2018 Moscow, Russia

By Catherine Tsounis

The church where I go is named after Wonderworking and Unmercenary Saints Kosmas and Damian of Asia in Maroseika str.
The church where I go is named after Wonderworking and Unmercenary Saints Kosmas and Damian of Asia in Maroseika str. “Russia is a country of extremes: horror and beauty, brutality and bravery. From the 300-year reign of the Romanovs to the Bolshevik Revolution, from the blood-soaked Stalin years to the paranoia of the Cold War, from the brief glimmerings of freedom during perestoika to the autocracy of Vladimir Putin, Russians have lived a history wild in its swings.”1

Travel makes new friends. I have a correspondence with my tour Russian guide Irina, a mother of three sons, for over two and a half years. Her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy represents the average Russian turning away from Atheism to their Russian Orthodox roots. She has sent photos and information on Russian Orthodox Christmas, New Year and Epiphany that is rarely seen in mainstream media.

Russians had a 10-day New Year break, starting December 30 that year and ending the day Bolshoi.

Bolshoi. after the Russian Orthodox Christmas Day on January 8 the following year.2 “All previous week we had been celebrating Christmas,” explained Irina. “A wonderful time when all people were united by the big holiday and one could feel that special exciting mood all around Russia. Festive decorations in the streets and parks, open stages for concerts and outdoor shows, and of course, numerous Christmas markets with souvenirs and dishes of different national cuisines. The festival "travelling to Christmas" started in December and finished on January 15. The culmination of the holidays happened on January,7 when the Russian Orthodox church celebrates Christmas.”

Irina recalls her grandmother, who remained Russian Orthodox. That took bravery in an official Atheistic state, like the way globalism is evolving. “Looking back into my childhood I cannot remember any celebrations. I was growing up in the atheistic country and most people were not religious. The only one person in my big family, who believed, was my grandmother Matrona (my father's mother). She remained faithful to the God all her life and we couldn't but respect it.”

Christmas sight.
Christmas sight. Irina was taught respect for her seniors in Russia. “Grandmother was not advertising her belief,” she said. “But she always marked Christian holidays with tasty meals she cooked for all of us and for her dear guests, the members of a little Christian community which came to her place to read Gospel and to pray. On January 7. my mother always reminded me to congratulate Matrona with Christmas as it was a very important day for her. At that time, I was not aware of the meaning of the word Christmas. I knew it was the name of some holiday and I didn't care much to learn more. But I wished to please the Grandma and always greeted her.” Matrona is a late Lain name meaning “Lady” used in Russia.

“Grandmother was not advertising her belief,” she continued saying. “But she always marked Christian holidays with tasty meals she cooked for all of us and for her dear guests, the members of a little Christian community which came to her place to read Gospel and to pray. On January 7. my mother always reminded me to congratulate Matrona with Christmas as it was a very important day for her. At that time, I was not aware of the meaning of the word Christmas. I knew it was the name of some holiday and I didn't care much to learn more. But I wished to please the Grandma and always greeted her.” Amazing! Crypto Christians during atheistic regime.

“In 1980s religion was released from suppression and more people started to visit churches,” she explained. “Some consciously, some were just curious. Only after the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, Christmas in Russia became a legal holiday and official day off. Now central TV channels broadcast the overnight Christmas service from the main church, Cathedral of Christ the Savior.” Does that happen here?

“There are a few days a year when churches are especially busy - Christmas, Baptism Day Saints Blessed Prince Michael and Boyar Theodore of Chernigov the Wonderworkers Orthodox Church, Moscow (right).
Saints Blessed Prince Michael and Boyar Theodore of Chernigov the Wonderworkers Orthodox Church, Moscow (right). and Easter,” Irina said. “Even people who don't visit regular services try to come on those holidays. Now there are almost 800 orthodox churches in Moscow (as before the revolution of 1917). All of them are full during the overnight service. The main area of Moscow, where concentration of churches is very big, resembles a musical box due to beautiful bells ringing for liturgy at midnight and between 2 and 3 am.

The church where I go is named after Wonderworking and Unmercenary Saints Kosmas and Damian of Asia in Maroseika str. It is not very big and on Sundays it's totally packed to say nothing of big holidays. That's why I try to come early before the service starts. Then it's possible to stand closer to the iconostasis and the altar. The night service before the liturgy started at 21.30. At that time the church was already full. Most people wanted to participate in communion and confession. After an hour of waiting on line I took my chance. All three priests of my church were on duty that night. One was totally busy with confession process. The two others were doing service in the altar. But because of too many people they had to help with confession in between their service almost till the communion which happened closer to 2 in the morning!” Astonishing!

Christmas sight.
Christmas sight. “The liturgy was gorgeous!” Irina explained. “Beautiful vestments of clergy (gold embroidery on the creamy atlas), lights of hundreds of candles and flowers at the icons! And the church choir! I cannot describe those magnificent voices... I believe this church has one of the best choirs in the whole Moscow! I didn't feel the time. All people were fascinated! I estimated over two hundred people in our little church. They could hardly fit indoors. And there were a lot of little children. Most of them behaved well. But even those who felt tired tried to keep quiet. After communion they all became joyful and playful again. Though, I think majority of little parishioners who regularly visit church with their parents came for the "kid's" liturgy at 9 am the same morning.”

Irina revealed “the service finished at about 1.45 am. Some people hurried to catch metro and busses which were working longer that night. Quite a lot remained in the church to lay the tables for tea and snacks they brought to share. I didn't want to hurry as a lot of my friends remained and the celebration was going on. Near the entrance to my church there is a little kiosk with a Greek name 'Arkhondaric' (restaurant). They sell hot drinks, pastry and some food they deliver from Greece, like olive oil, olives and coffee and other tasty things. I was surprised to see it open at that time. They seemed to have a good business.”

Christmas, Moscow.
Christmas, Moscow. Christmas Eve service was a fairy tale to this 50-year-old mother of three grown sons. “After another hour some kind people suggested to drive me home as they had extra space in their car. It was a good luck for me as public transport had already stopped working. I live far away from my church. Usually it takes me about one hour to get home by metro and bus with couple changes. In the night by car it took us only about 25 minutes. Before we reached my district, we had passed by eight other churches. It was so pleasant to see they had lights and a lot of people inside and around.”  

“At home my sons met me, and I felt sorry they missed such a fairy night. So far, I am the only one believer in my family. I got baptized two years ago on January,16 in 2016. Now I can understand my grandmother. I hope sometime my children will take true decision. With the God's help. I am sending you some pictures from my phone. Here it is not appreciated when people take pictures during services, so I've done very few and perhaps not very well. Again, have to apologize. Yours, Irina”.

The Russian Orthodox Church is one of 15 mostly independent national churches that Christmas Morning, 2 p.m. breakfast.Christmas Morning, 2 p.m. breakfast.comprise the Eastern Orthodox Church. All Eastern Orthodox churches base their liturgical calendar on the Julian calendar, but some use the Revised Julian calendar. Because the Russian Orthodox Church still observes the Julian calendar. Dec. 25 on the Julian calendar corresponds to Jan. 7 on the Gregorian calendar, which America and most of the rest of the world uses.3

January 19th is the Russian Orthodox Epiphany. In the Orthodox tradition, water blessed by a priest during Epiphany week is considered holy and pure, and believers attribute healing powers to it. Authorities set up bathing sites for up to two million believers all over Russia, including parts of Siberia where January temperatures dip below -30C.

We went to Russia to discover our Byzantine roots, destroyed in Anatolia and the Middle East. Irina aided us in our quest to discover “the Orthodoxy of the North”. My despondence that my Greek Orthodox faith, Greek and Byzantine cultures would be lost in the tide of globalism and Middle east persecution, vanished. Irina with her smile and kindness changed our lives by helping us discover our Orthodox roots preserved from the 10th century and alive now in an Orthodox Christian Russia. Our Byzantine civilization did not die with the “Fall of Constantinople” in 1453.  As Rev. Eugene Pappas said “they are a suffering church. That is why its faith is blossoming.”5
 


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