Russians welcome return of Christmas

MOSCOW — MOSCOW -- In a small brick church almost hidden by scaffolding, the faithful will huddle beneath precariously supported walls for Christmas services tonight.

Although the Church of the Holy Trinity has no heat and its marble floors soon numb the feet, worshipers seem not to mind. Young girls stand beside grandmothers, and teen-age boys join in the chorus of voices repeating ancient Slavic hymns.


Although it will be too cold in the church to hold the traditional Christmas midnight service tonight, it will have Christmas Eve services today and Christmas morning tomorrow.

Today, their celebration will not merely be tolerated, but it will be officially sanctioned by the Russian government, which for the second year is recognizing Orthodox Christmas as a state holiday.


Bright banners strung across streets and hanging from lampposts announce Christmas greetings. A two-story-tall brown-and-white banner hanging in Red Square proclaims that Christ brought peace to mankind.

"I hope Christmas will become an important holiday," said Tatyana Shuvalova, a 27-year-old conductor of the four-person choir at the Church of the Holy Trinity.

For over 70 years, Christmas was almost ignored, although some unwed girls used the day to perform various guessing games to predict their future husbands.

Father Sergi, who is in charge of the Church of the Holy Trinity, said that Russians have become increasingly interested in celebrating Christmas.

"People don't even understand why they do it," said the priest, whose long black robe is adorned only with a silver cross. "But when the children grow up, we hope they will be able to celebrate it with a full consciousness."

In a country desperately in need of something to celebrate, the Russian Parliament is debating which holidays the republic will observe. Orthodox Christmas, closely bound with the old

Russian life, is almost certain to be one of them.

With the passing of the Soviet era, at least some of the holidays it revered are bound to be eliminated. Parliament is considering deleting International Labor Day May 1 and the celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution on Nov. 7-8. In the past, these holidays were observed with great parades of workers, tanks and troops through Red Square.


But the Russians aren't entirely willing to abandon the celebrations of the Soviet state. The proposal Parliament is considering includes International Women's Day, observed March 8 by giving presents to women; Victory Day May 8-9 to commemorate victory over Germany in World War II; and Dec. 30-Jan. 2 for New Year's.

Parliament is also proposing to add to the holidays June 12, to mark the day in 1991 that the Russian Republic was proclaimed independent from the Soviet Union.

Patriarch Alexi of the Russian Orthodox Church has petitioned Boris N. Yeltsin's government to give official recognition to Easter as well, but it is not included on the list of holidays Parliament is considering.

Russians themselves have different opinions on what holidays they think the state should celebrate. According to the Tass news agency, a recent public opinion poll showed that a majority of Russians would like to keep International Women's Day, Victory Day and even May Day (May 1) instead of adding Easter.

But although a majority favored continuing to celebrate May Day, that holiday was also the one that drew the most opposition, with 27.8 percent of Russians wanting to abolish it.

Almost half of the Russians polled were willing to transfer the


November holidays observing the revolution to provide extra days at New Year's. But 41.2 percent were willing to leave everything as it is.

Although Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists live in Russia, the government's willingness to sanction Christmas celebrations is evident of the close ties the Orthodox Church has maintained with government. Amid a renewed interest in the Russian culture, traditions and nobility, it is perhaps natural that there should be renewed support for the Orthodox Church.

Father Sergi explains that the history of the country is bound up in the church. The Church of the Holy Trinity, for example, is symbolic of Russian history for the past two centuries.

It was built in 1806 by Duchess Daria Repnina on her family manor, Vorontsovo, for the safe return of her nephew Duke Sergei Volkonsky, who fought Napoleon.

The church was closed in 1937 -- under Stalin -- and converted into a machine shop for a collective farm. Its bell tower was dismantled to use the bricks to construct a pig shed.

During World War II, the building held military supplies. Later, it housed a toy factory. Then it was abandoned altogether. City authorities razed the cemetery in 1980.


Sometime in the 1980s, someone put a sign on the church asking passers-by to take a look. "Our souls were trampled like this church."

But with changes in politics came greater toleration, even promotion, of the church. Thousands of churches, once closed, have been reopened.

"Now it is so free, no one is ashamed to say they go to church," said Galina Gushina, an elderly woman who came to Holy Trinity to pray.