Without having given it much thought up until the end of the semester, as decorations began to go up around town and talk of the holidays began, I realized that this would be my first winter holiday season away from home. More than taken by the thought of what would be absent, I was eager to discover what new traditions and manner of celebration I would encounter while abroad.
The traditional Russian Christmas celebration takes place on the seventh of January due to the Orthodox Church’s continued adherence to the Gregorian calendar. Compared to the hubbub of the New Year’s celebration, it is generally a more conservative, family centered affair for those who in some way choose to festively greet the holiday. Another lingering effect of the Gregorian calendar’s longtime use is the celebration of “Old” New Year (Старый новый год) which begins on the 13th of January. The unique location and demography of Russia and especially Vladivostok also calls for the recognition of the Lunar New Year (Лунный новый год). While Russians commonly refer to it as “Chinese New Year” (Китайский новый год), this holiday is observed by many Asian cultures which also have a significant presence in Russia. The date of the Lunar New Year varies annually, but generally falls between late–January and mid-February.
This may seem like quite the celebration-heavy time of year. It is even more so when one considers that the Russian federal New Year’s holiday begins on January 1 and averages about 10-11 days in duration. However, I noticed little decline in the hum of activity during this supposed holiday period as many private businesses and individual vendors were soon back to work. Perhaps this is just yet another consequence of the current financial crisis the country is experiencing.
Despite these recent economic hardships, however, the holiday season I experienced was far from wanting in enthusiasm. The following are just some of the many events and activities that have highlighted my holidays during this time of the year in Vladivostok.
Morozko at Fetisov Arena
Fetisov Arena (Фетисов арена) is a new concert-sports complex (концертно-спортивный комплекс) opened in 2013 on the outskirts of the city. While the official home of the local hockey club Admiral (Адмирал), the facility hosts much more than just sports competitions. Indeed, as far as event venues are concerned, I would call it the less formal mate to the Theater of Opera and Ballet here in Vladivostok. For this reason, I have heard that tickets to many of the events here can be hard to come by and may set you back no small sum. Luckily, some acquaintances of mine found themselves with an absentee ticket and invited me to accompany them and their children to the ice show (ледовое шоу) of the Russian children’s story Morozko (Морозко).
While the theme of the story is one of classic fairytale proportions – a beautiful girl (Настенька) is held captive, frozen in a block of ice until freed by the brave Ivan (Иван) with the help of “Father Frost” (here referred to as “Mорозко) – the execution of the spectacle made it anything but boring for observers of all ages. With a cast composed of several Olympic champion ice skaters who flawlessly executed stunts not allowed in Olympic competition due to their dangerous nature, a brilliant light show and dynamic soundtrack, the show was a taste of holiday cheer on a new and fantastically entertaining level the likes of which I had yet to encounter. A highly recommended event if you get the chance to attend.
The Nutcracker at the Theater of Opera and Ballet
Although the time I had come to know as Christmas had in fact already passed, attending the performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s (Пётр Чайковский) ballet The Nutcracker (Щелкунчик) on the evening of the 26th of December was at the height of the pre-holiday season by local standards. Although I was familiar with The Nutcrackerin the capacity of its acting as a widely recognized holiday symbol, I was admittedly fairly ignorant of the details of the story itself. While this made the storyline especially compelling for me, I expect even someone familiar with all of the ins and outs of the holiday classic would find something to wonder at in the revamped presentation provided by the theater’s young Artistic Director. And of course, where better to enjoy the universally renowned story than in its home country!
Walks on the Pacific Ocean
Probably one of the coolest and least expected opportunities I have frequently been taking advantage of is walking out onto the frozen Amurskii Bay (Aмурский залив). While just on the other side of the peninsula, the Golden Horn Bay (бухта Золотой Рог) remains largely unfrozen, the more expansive but quieter Amurskii, with ice several feet thick at times, is a hub of activity. This is true not only for people inclined to go strolling out on this salty piece of ephemeral real estate, but also for the fishermen (рыбаки) – both hobbyists and professionals – who drill through the ice and brave the cold all day long in hopes of bringing in a good haul. While it is still only mid-January and ice-breaking ships have disrupted the integrity of the ice in places, a popular late-winter pastime is to drive across the ice to the peninsula Peschanii (полуостров Песчаный) at the other side of the bay; a distance of some tens of kilometers depending on the route. As I’ve also been told, just about every year one hears stories of cars breaking through the ice. If I end up making the trip, I think I’ll be doing so on foot!
Central Square Decorations and Laser Show
As it turns out, the blistering winds here are not only an annoyance for any skin left exposed to their icy gusts, but have even affected the holiday decorations. In years past, the main square has been decorated with a large, real Christmas/New Year’s tree (ёлка). However, the costs in the way of both monetary expenditures and symbolically deflated holiday cheer resulting from the tree’s toppling numerous times led the city to go with a more stable, broad-based artificial tree (искусственная ёлка) this time around. Accompanied by lights, a small ice ramp (горка) for children to sled down, several vendors and a laser show (лазерное шоу) projected onto the side of the central government office building every evening made for a festive atmosphere long before and after the New Year’s celebration itself.
I think that it is safe to say that the American childhood right of passage that is learning to ride a bike is fairly well reflected in the acclimation to ice skating for the average Russian child. Having not been on a rink (каток) since childhood, I wasn’t exactly chompin’ at the bit to lace ‘em up. Nevertheless, as my host family dug out their collection of skates to see what still fit, what needed sharpening etc. I knew I simply could not spend an entire winter in Russia without skating at least once. So it was on a small, fenced-in, free public rink for children (каток для детей) that I returned to the ice for my decadal appearance. Confident in my ability to show up the wobbly legged, wipe-out prone, probably five year old first-timer who was our only competition that day, I cut some uneasy ovals for an hour or two and chalked my zero fall count up to a momentous personal victory. While this was a good, quiet and, most importantly, largely unobserved place for beginners, the popular destination for skaters in the city is Avantgaurd (Авангард) rink on Svetlanksaya street where for a small fee of around 150 rubles, one can skate on a well maintained, lighted rink to the sounds of festive music.
The Orthodox celebration of the baptism (крещение) of Christ takes place annually at midnight on the morning of the 19th of January. For believers and general partakers of the celebration, the ritual involves bathing oneself in a local body of water, dunking one’s head three times. Such a gesture is representative of the three-part nature of God, known to Russians as the troika (тройка). Here in Vladivostok, as in many locations where temperatures annually drop below freezing long enough for local bodies of water to freeze over, an ice hole (прорубь) is cut, often in the shape of a cross, and fitted with wooden stairs to ensure the safe passage into and out of the icy waters for all participants. Unfortunately, due to a mix-up as to which midnight the official celebration would be taking place on, I was not able to witness the festivities surrounding the midnight bathing. Luckily, however, thanks to the local ice-swimmers (моржи) who bathe in the frigid waters all winter long, I was able to experience the enlivening sensation of a sub-zero plunge first hand!
Staying in Vladivostok for winter break granted me several weeks of interaction with the city and its inhabitants on a level not entirely dependent on my status as student. Thus I was able to experience a different aspect of life in Vladivostok and consequently feel my time abroad has provided me with not just a sense of what life is like on the other side of the world, but something more in the way of the ability to in some way sympathize with the locals when they speak of their far-eastern hometown.