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MOSCOW, January 1. /TASS/. The first Christmas trees in Russia appeared during a period that historians often refer to as the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), which followed the Polish invasion. This tradition failed to take root then. During the reign of Peter the Great (1672-1725), conifer trees began to be set up on New Year’s Eve on Moscow’s Cathedral Square and in Merchant Yard (the then equivalent of today’s indoor shopping malls). The custom was borrowed from the Europeans that resided in Moscow’s German Quarter.
On December 29 and 30, 1699 (December 19 and 20 according to the Julian Calendar effective in those days), Peter the Great issued two decrees - one on a new system of chronology and the other, on celebrating the New Year. Under the decrees, the years were to be counted from the day of Jesus Christ’s birth and the beginning of the new year would be celebrated on January 1, in accordance with the custom adopted in European Christian countries. Before that, Russia had stuck to the Byzantine Calendar, which calculated historical time from the moment of the world’s creation (believed to have been at 5509-5508 BC). According to the Byzantine Calendar, the first day of the new year was on September 1. That said, Peter the Great decided against adopting the Gregorian Calendar, which European countries had introduced in the 16th century. Russia retained the Julian calendar.
It was ordered to decorate Moscow’s main streets and the homes of the nobility with conifer trees and branches. The New Year festivities lasted for seven days, topping the holiday off with a bonfire display lighting up Moscow’s Red Square, the site of the main events.
Spruces were put up and decorated for Christmas, December 25, and remained in place until the New Year. Originally, the trees were adorned with sweets, fruit, ribbons, and candles. Later, they were decked out with special toys, most of them associated with biblical stories: jingle bells, stars, holiday lamps and tiny figures of angels and shepherds. Presents for all members of the family were placed under the tree - an unmistakable allusion to the Gifts of the Magi. Later, toys made from glass began to be brought from Germany. At the end of the 19th century, glass baubles and Russian-manufactured beads were already available. At about the same time, the country borrowed the European custom of making artificial Christmas trees. With that, the initial ones were made from pieces of fabric.
The first Christmas tree meant for public display was placed inside St. Petersburg’s railway station in 1852. Later, trees began to be installed and decorated at other public sites.
The Christmas tree tradition was interrupted by World War I. In 1915, German prisoners of war, kept at a hospital in Saratov, arranged a Christmas party, consequently triggering enraged comments from Russian dailies. Thus, Emperor Nicholas II banned the custom of decorating trees for Christmas.
Spotlight on the spruce’s Soviet-era saga
After the 1917 October Revolution, Nicholas II’s prohibition was lifted. The Christmas and New Year holiday tradition festivities would continue for several years. For the children of Soviet government officials and Communist Party functionaries, New Year’s parties around decorated trees were held in the Kremlin. With the launch of an anti-religious campaign in the mid-1920s, though, the celebrations were condemned as an alien “bourgeois and religious” legacy and outlawed in 1929.
On December 28, 1935, the Communist Party’s daily Pravda carried an article calling for a revision of the “erroneous” prohibition on New Year’s parties and urged that festivities and entertainment events for children across the nation be organized. A gala New Year’s party was held in the Kremlin for children and the youth. Russia’s traditional fairytale personality - Grandfather Frost (or Ded Moroz in Russian) - hosted the event. Another fictional character, the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka), joined a year later.
On December 23, 1947, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet (the then Soviet national legislature) declared January 1 as an official public holiday and a day-off.
Decorations over the decades
In the 1930s, nationwide factories began to churn out tree toys in abundance, but those delicate and fragile items, made from hot glass and painted by hand, were rather expensive. Many families demonstrated great resourcefulness in making improvised decorations from cardboard wood, color paper and painted spruce cones. Pressed cotton wool toys were extremely popular. Their mass production had continued up until the mid-1950s. On Soviet New Year’s trees, along with the traditional figures depicting animals and birds, fairytale characters, snowflakes and flowers, you could find baubles with portraits of Lenin and Stalin, toy figures of polar explorers, pioneers (the USSR’s version of the boy scouts and girl scouts) with trumpets, blimps, tanks, tractors, bundles of wheat, ears of corn, space satellites, space rockets and so on. Plastics, which began to be used widely for making New Year’s toys in the 1960s, considerably slashed production costs and, consequently, retail prices.
Festive spruce adorns Kremlin’s Cathedral Square
Right in the middle of the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square, a festive tree has been put up every year since December 1996. In 2001-2004, an artificial installation resembling a tree was used instead of a real one due to the harsh frosts. On two occasions, the trees were brought from Veliky Ustyug, the residence of Grandfather Frost, but delivering the tree in an impeccable condition from a dense forest several hundred kilometers away turned out to be a rather tricky task, so trees began to be selected near Moscow. Nowadays, the casting call for eye-catching candidates kicks off in the spring or early summer. First, images taken from space satellites and helicopters are thoroughly scrutinized. Then, a group of commissioners from the Russian presidential staff goes straight to the site to have a look at the finalists.
A tree’s attractive appearance and its ability to withstand weather changes are the main factors considered. That being said, the location and accessibility are just as vital. Normally, administrators opt for a spruce that grows not far from a decent road, so as to minimize potential harm to other trees and facilitate transportation. An approximate set of ‘beauty’ standards for the contenders to live up to looks like this: the spruce is supposed to be about 95 years old and 30 meters tall. In addition, its trunk at the bottom should be about 60-70 centimeters in diameter. Other essential criteria call for the tree’s perfect pyramidal shape, strait trunk, dense conifer with dark-green needles and strong branches capable of withstanding temperature fluctuations. A special trailer transports the tree to the Kremlin, bringing the spruce through the Spassky Gate, which is opened only on very special occasions.
When the celebrations are over, the tree is dismantled, with the timber subsequently used to make souvenirs and ice hockey sticks for kids’ teams. In January 2017, the seeds collected from the spruce were sent to a nursery garden to breed coniferous trees, which has now turned into an annual tradition.
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