07 January 2008

Merry Orthodox Christmas!

Most Christmas traditions familiar to Americans, like Christmas trees, gifts, and Santa Claus, happen at New Year's in Russia. The main tradition associated with Orthodox Christmas seems to be a form of mock-begging in which children go from door to door on Christmas Eve with a bowl of кутья/kut'ya, a wheat-based porridge with chocolate, fruit juice, nuts, raisins, and various other sweet stuff thrown in. They offer the master and mistress of each house a taste of the porridge, and in exchange they're given candy, money, or some other treat. This is supposed to bring good fortune to the house for the next year. Not surprising that this is the kind of tradition that weathered the Soviet era, I guess, since it seems innocuous and non-religious enough to have not been seriously frowned upon.

Anyway, I knew about this, at least peripherally, but somehow I didn't think to buy candy so I'd be ready when kids came to my door. So it caught me off guard last night when the doorbell rang as I was sitting in my kitchen knitting with the oven turned on for warmth. I opened the door to a group of little boys, who shouted some kind of incomprehensible verse at me.

"Excuse me?" I said, probably looking as baffled as I felt.

[Incomprehensible verse!] they shouted again. (I think it's something like "The carolers have come, open the gates!," but you sure couldn't tell from the cacophony of prepubescent voices.)

"Oh." I stammered. "Ah. I see. This is your Christmas, right? The thing is, I'm a foreigner, I didn't know..."

"Will you try our porridge?" interrupted the oldest boy (thankfully, before I crashed and burned too badly).

"Umm... sure. Ok. Yeah, hang on," I said, feeling pretty sure that that's not what you're supposed to say, and went to fetch a spoon. I got the spoon, and then proceeded to spill the porridge awkwardly all over my sleeve and the floor as I pried off the Tupperware lid. I declared it delicious, and then continued to stumble through the encounter:

"Ok, so, now I'm supposed to give you something, right? See, I didn't know... I mean, I didn't buy any candy. But if you'll just wait one more second..."

"Oh, uh, that's ok, we understand," the oldest boy cut in, probably plotting the group's escape from this babbling person in her porridgy sweater, but I had already wandered off to retrieve some quarters from the depths of my suitcase: "Ok, so, the thing is, I'm American, right? So here are some American coins. They're for you. Thank you. Merry Christmas. Thank you. Goodbye."

Christmas only got better from there: I was prepared for the next two groups of kids who came by, and when my supply of quarters ran out I went over to a student's house. We took some kut'ya to her godmother, where we were rewarded with 100 rubles each (about $4 – score!) and a sack of candy. We used the money to buy wine (although I vetoed the idea of drinking it on the street) and proceeded to one of her friend's houses. Another Christmas tradition is apparently that Christmas Eve is the best night of the whole year for fortune telling, so this friend's mom told our fortunes over wine, cake, and more kut'ya.

I'm fairly sure that neither of these traditions is exclusively Russian. The going door-to-door can be found in various cultures, I think, including medieval Europe (which is probably where it comes from). As for the fortune-telling, isn't there an Alexander Pope poem about that? It's not Christmas, but some saint's day in early January (which would coincide with Orthodox Christmas, anyway) when maidens are supposed to dream of their future husbands. Maybe it's not Alexander Pope. Whatever. (Edit: try John Keats, Leslie. "The Eve of St. Agnes.")

Anyway, my fortune was neither great nor bad. I'm supposed to lose my passport or big money sometime in March or April, which makes me wonder if this woman somehow knows me – it seems like not a year goes by where I don't lose a relatively large sum of money. (That $50 from this past summer? I still maintain that TSA stole it out of my suitcase.) On the bright(?) side, she gave me advice about grad school (both of my top choices are good) and husbands (look for a Russian one, not an American).

So that was all yesterday (Christmas Eve), and then today I had a massive Christmas dinner with one of the guards from the university and his wife. Our university, like many institutions in Russia, employs men to sit by the door and check your ID as you walk in, so as to keep out the riff-raff. One of these guys is a retiree whose son and daughter-in-law are in the U.S. doing PhD work at... Bowling Green State University! (That's really close to my hometown, for those not in the know.) I took them a big package of Russian stuff from their parents when I went home for "Catholic" Christmas, and in return their parents invited me over for Orthodox Christmas!

The parents are really, really kind (they both call me заенка, a Russian pet name that translates as "bunny"). We had a nice dinner, drank some champagne, sang some Ukrainian folk songs, and they sent me home with pounds and pounds of preserves from their garden – raspberry jam, pickled tomatoes and zucchini, salted cucumbers – and a big ol' slice of liver pie. (Sad but true: most Russian party food seems to be stuff I don’t really like, such as liver pie, fish (fried, baked, stuffed, chopped up in salads, salted, pickled), meat jello, and salads made with entire jars of mayonnaise. But I've made it through the big holidays without offending any hosts – I even ate two slices of liver pie today! – and at least now I have the preserves to look forward to.)


Anonymous said...

"Bunny!" I say, "Bunny!"
And you thought "Yezwee" was a cute name ...


P.S. Ick. Liver pie. NO WAY you're getting me to eat that stuff.

Cornelius said...

Hi Leslie

I really liked your engineering attempt at the window to eliminate the draft. I visited your town a few months ago and took some photos of Novodevichy Convent.
There is this nice map that gives all the names of the places, towers and gates, but its all in Russian and I don't have a Russian friend to translate it for me. Will you be so kind to ask one of your Russian friends to translate the names for me to English. O here is the map: http://picasaweb.google.com/HCduPreez/NovodevichyConventMap/photo?authkey=q-ETLJsYUis#5153054652245244434
looking forward hearing from you.
Thanks in advance.

Leslie said...

I don't actually live in Moscow - I've just spent a lot of time there - but I'm happy to translate the map for you. Here is my translation:

Map of Architectural Landmarks of Novodevichy Convent.

1. Smolensk cathedral. 1524-1525
2. Refectory and chambers of Irina Godunova. 16th-17th centuries.
3. Ambrosiev church. 16th-17th centuries.
4. Church of the Protection. 1687-1688.
5. Mariin chambers. 1687-1688.
6. Church of the Assumption with refectory. 1685-1687.
7. Bell tower. 1689-1690.
8. Church of the Transfiguration. 1687-1688.
9. Lopukhin chambers 1687-1688.
10. Choral chambers. Early 18th century.
11. Treasury chambers. Late 17th century.
12. Archers' guardhouse of the Tower on the Pond (note: literal translation of its name, Naprudnaya Tower.) 17th century. (Chambers of Tsarevna Sofia Alexeyevna.)
13. Chambers of Tsarevna Yevdokiya Miloslavskaya. Late 17th-early 18th century.
14. Filatiyev school. 19th century.
15. Hospital. Late 17th century.
16. Archers' guardhouse of the Nikolskaya Tower. 17th century.
17. Archers' guardhouse of the Chebotarnaya Tower. 17th century.
18. Setunskaya archers' guardhouse. 17th century.
19. Burial chambers. 17th century.
20. Prokhorov Chapel. Early 20th century.
21. Volkhonsky mausoleum. First half of the 19th century.
Walls and towers, 16th-18th century:
22. Tsarina's Tower.
23. Nikolskaya Tower.
24. Iosafovskaya Tower.
25. Shvalnaya Tower.
26. Chebotarnaya Tower.
27. Holy Protection (or Mother-of-God, or Sparrow) Tower.
28. John the Baptist (or Irina's) Tower.
29. Setunskaya Tower.
30. Zatrapeznaya (literally: Beyond-the-refectory) Tower.
31. Savainskaya Tower.
32. Tower on the Pond.
33. Lopukhinskaya Tower.

Hope that helps!

Cornelius said...

Wow, thanks a lot Leslie.
I'm trying to put some names and historical facts to the photos that I took during my trip in Russia. I spent 3 days in Moscow and 4 days in your beloved city St.Petersburg and I can see why you like it. I think that staying in a country is better, then you get to know the people and their ways. If you ever in South Korea or South Africa scream. Then I'll stick you for lunch :-) for all your effort. I am sort of doing the same as you write down ones experiences, but did not know about bloging when I started so have pages and pages in word that is hard to convert to into a blog. If you know of an easy way let me know and then I too can be a good blogger like yourself.
Once more thanks.

Rosa said...

That sounds like a fun tradition. Do Russians trick or treat too?

Leslie said...

Nope, no trick-or-treating, although Halloween is sort of beginning to catch on. When we had our Halloween party and I explained trick-or-treating, everyone was quick to point out that they do the same thing at Christmas here. They're even supposed to do it in costume, or so I'm told, but none of the kids who came to my door were wearing costumes.