There are many different ways to celebrate Christmas. In Portugal it’s tradition to invite dead relatives to dine with you. In Sweden they watch the same Disney cartoon every year. First shown in 1958 40 of a country watch it on television each Christmas. In Greenland they eat raw whale skin. In some countries parents even warn their children of a serial home Invader called Santa. So no matter where you are Christmas is a weird Affair. But with Christmas being so often linked to religion how was it celebrated in the Soviet Union? How was Soviet Christmas different?
To understand Soviet Christmas there are some things you need to know first. Russia is an Eastern Orthodox country so they’ve always celebrated Christmas in January. It’s also never been as big there as it is in the west. While westerners see Christmas as the number one holiday they prefer Easter. That being said it was big enough to become a political issue. In 1922 the Soviet Union was established having won a brutal Civil War. The revolutionaries were now free to do whatever they wanted. That included seven many ties to the past. For a while they even tried to ban alcohol in… Russia. That’s like banning cheese in France or cocaine in Florida. Yet they saw it as just another way the old regime controlled the masses.
Just like in present-day North Korea they saw religion as counter revolutionary and Christmas as a negative influence. So the new government largely discouraged it. And when I say discourage I mean they outright banned it in 1928. While no Easter there is a lot of tradition behind Russian Christmas. Instead of Santa Claus they have ded moroz which literally means grandfather Frost. Rooted in Slavic mythology he was originally an evil wizard who would freeze people to death. But in time Christianity remoulded ded moroz, transforming him into a benevolent figure. But Stalin hated him.
When Christmas was outlawed in 1928 ded moroz was officially declared an ally of the priest. And believe me that was not a good thing in Stalinist Russia. But in 1935 it was decided the origins of ded moroz were pre-christian and therefore not a threat to the atheism of the Soviet Union. Ded moroz was back, but not for Christmas. That was still banned the Soviet governments embraced new years which is arguably the least religious holiday of all. At first it was just a small celebration but in time many Christmas traditions made their way over. It took a while for Christmas trees to catch on because for a long time in Russia they were seen as a bad Omen. But eventually they would join ded moroz and gift-giving.
Soviet Christmas Films
they even produced animated New Year’s films which were basically just Russian versions of our Christmas films. Ded moroz has the exact appearance of Father Christmas and flies to Moscow where he delivers presents to children. The only major difference is that he has a spaceship, not a sleigh. Also there are the weird tree goblins he hangs around with. But other than that he’s just Santa. After the death of Stalin the Soviet Union became a lot less brutal. This easing of brutality extended itself to religious expression. So more and more began celebrating Christmas at home. Technically this was still illegal. In fact Christmas was only reinstated in 1991 with a collapse of a Soviet Union.
But by that time New Years had fully embedded itself into popular culture. Still now it is a much bigger holiday, retaining many of the traditions we associate with Christmas. So the whole thing is weird. Some people even sued the new Russian government, claiming it was illegal to recognize Christmas. But most people just don’t care either way. There was a similar situation in Yugoslavia, but that’s a story for another day.