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Glass Ornaments

Christmas in Russia: A Tradition Reclaimed
For most Americans, the Christmas traditions that form our Christmas celebration come from England and Germany. It isn’t surprising, then that most of our glass ornaments and other Christmas tree decorations have English and German origins. It can be easy to forget that there are other countries that have equally beautiful Christmas tree traditions. But Russian Christmases have had a lot of opposition over the years—in fact, the celebration of Christmas was banned for many years by the Communist Party. And yet despite the ban, a thriving industry of decorations—specifically wood and glass ornaments—have been able to flourish, despite the odds.

 

 

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Russian glass ornaments are as unique as the Russian Christmas celebration itself. Rather than celebrating Christmas Eve on December 24th, the Russian Orthodox Church uses the date of January 26th. There is a twelve course supper honoring each of the 12 apostles, traditionally of goose, Borsch, cabbage, and suckling pig. Churches are decorated with glass ornaments, colored lights, and flowers—and people come to sing hymns. Instead of Santa Claus distributing presents for the children, an old woman named Babushka does the honors. Just like in Germany, England, and America, in Russia Christmas trees are decorated with brightly colored glass ornaments and brilliant strands of lights. These trees, however, are just as much in place inside the churches as they are inside Russian homes.


Of course, after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Christmas was banned through Russia, and today Christmas is celebrated more as a winter festival than as a religious holiday. One tradition that did return in 1992, when religious celebrations were once more permitted, was the Christmas tree, known as the Yolka. The practice of decorate Yolkas (or fir tree) was started by Peter the Great, who was so impressed by the colored glass ornaments he saw in the Christmas trees of Western Europe. Many Russian families couldn’t afford the costly glass ornaments or tinsel that trimmed the trees of Peter the Great’s palace. Instead, they would decorate their Yolkas with homemade paper decorations, fruit, and nuts. In later years, these would be replaced by wooden ornaments, and once glass became inexpensive, glass ornaments as well.


It’s difficult to overstate the radical change the Russian Christmas celebration was forced to undergo after Communism came to power. Believing religion to be an “opiate of the masses” Lenin and Stalin managed to dissolve the monasteries and convents, and banned any public (and often private) displays of religion whatsoever. But rather than allowing all of their stockings to be taken and their glass ornaments to be smashed, the Russian people came up with clever ways to appropriate the old festivities. Instead of putting glass ornaments on a Christmas tree, they decorated a “New Year’s tree.” Instead of Babushka giving presents to the children, the Russians invented a character named “Grandfather Frost” who bore an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus. If Christmas was celebrated at all before 1992, it was in the small villages in the countryside, far away from the prying eyes of the Communist leaders.


So when you look at the distinctive glass ornaments and unique painted decorations that hail from Russia, you can have an appreciation what these traditions have endured to be alive and well today.