December 29, 2014
This week was graced with December 25th falling on Thursday. Unfortunately though, in Ukraine and Russia that date comes with very little significance. Christmas is an occasion to mark, but is much smaller in significance, due to two main reasons. I wrote a paragraph about this in last year’s letter but considering that many of the readers have likely forgotten or just didn’t read it, I have decided to take the time today to recover this topic.
The first big reason comes from the rule of the Soviet Union. Communists and religion did not mix very well, which then had an effect on all holidays emphasizing the latter. Christmas was thrown into a back seat while all of the traditions of family, presents, and charity were squished in with the alcohol and fireworks of New Year’s. Thus, New Year’s is the big holiday to look forward to in this part of the world. All of the stores advertise the coming year with big lights showing 2015 and recommendations on how to dress a New Year’s tree, or costumes of their version of Santa Claus, Ded Moroz, which literally translates to Old Man Frost. As you walk around the streets, most objects will radiate the spirit of a changing calendar, rather than that of Christmas, which is felt so heavily in the West.
The second large factor in the 25th of December being an afterthought is found in the use of two different calendars. The modern world today functions off the Gregorian calendar. Russia, however, did not always use this one. During the time before the Bolshevik Revolution, the whole country functioned off of the Julian calendar, which is more or less the same, except for this one falling thirteen days behind the course of the Gregorian, therein placing Christmas on the seventh of January. So why is New Year’s celebrated January 1st instead of 13th? Well, when the Bolsheviks took control of the country, they adopted the new calendar. In response to maintain some kind of independence from the new order, the Russian Orthodox Church refused to use the new system, and has since maintained the old dating system.
With the combination of these two things, the 25th of December is just another day which passes by as if nothing had happened. Some members even get more excited over the birthday of Joseph Smith, December 23rd, than the 25th. It is understandable though, because to them the real holiday will be on the 7th. Just a little interesting bit of former Soviet Union culture.
The bishop of this ward does, however, recognize the customs of the rest of the world, and promptly invited the missionaries over for the 24th. We held a family home evening with him the prior week when they asked what different foods I enjoy to cook. I made the mistake of saying “Southern Gumbo”. It was a first for their entire family and I am certain that no other mission has even mentioned that dish to them. The next words that came from them were more of a command than request in saying that I should make it for Christmas Eve. Personally I don’t have much of an issue for this except that it takes too much time and money to make.
Not wanting to disappoint them, my companion and I agreed to have it ready. Between the soup and presents, our wallets emptied quickly, leaving us with the option of eating potatoes for the remainder of the week. But it was all worth the sacrifice. Our evening at the bishop’s apartment was well spent. We started by reading the story of the Nativity from the Bible, which was followed by a conversation about gratitude. Food was then eaten, stories shared, and an overly entertaining game of white elephant enjoyed.
My companion and I had a different understanding of the standard cost for white elephant presents from the rest of the people, as ours were seven times the cost. It was alright though. I purchased a small model of a U.S. battleship with the hope of ending up with it in the end, but much to my disappointment, the bishop’s four year old daughter picked it out first and fell in love. It became very out of taste to take it from her, so I canceled my plans and instead ended up with soap.
Friday also brought us the opportunity to meet with a member here who has not been to church for many years and has developed a heavy drinking problem. The visit was strange. There has been so much time for him without contact from the church, that very simple doctrines have become twisted. He would for one bit of time talk about how God was once a man on earth, and then the next moment ask if the Holy Ghost is God’s wife. He knew the story of the three Nephites well, but could not explain the steps in the fourth Article of Faith. His mind is like a large building which was once erected, but being neglected over time slowly withered away. We need to go back through and strip everything out from the ground floor up. Fortunately, he agreed to keep meeting with us on Fridays from this point moving forward, which is much needed because there is a lot to reteach and correct.
My first week here in Voskresensky, a woman came to Sacrament Meeting accompanied by two men. The two sister missionaries talked with her afterward, and it turned out that she was interested in joining the church over four years ago, but lost desire. They exchanged contact information with the intent of meeting that week. This woman did not answer her phone no matter how many times they called, leaving the sisters to think that she had changed her mind. This past week though, a call came from the woman saying that her mother is in the hospital and needs a blessing from us. We traveled together with the sisters Saturday morning and found the building situated on the border of our area. Her mom is very old and has a huge problem with blood sugar. We offered the blessing and then quickly parted ways.
Two days later she called the sisters and said that the day that we gave the blessing, her mother’s blood sugar decreased by half, and that the other two women in the room with us also wanted blessings. We agreed to go back this morning and were able to attend to the other two people. One of them explained to us how an overwhelming sense of warmth overcame her during the blessing. The sisters talked with her some more and she agreed to start meeting with them to talk about the church.
This has been a good week. This following one will be interesting with New Year’s coming forth and all of the drinking and fireworks attached with it.
P.S. Because of the level of drunk people on New Year’s Eve we have to be inside by 6 P.M. And then New Year’s Day is pretty much a ghost town until 6 P.M. when people like to take a stroll together. We plan on getting more housekeeping items taken care of at that time.