Friday, November 27, 2009

Merry Christmas, Comrade

Well, it's all over. Now everyone is fatter and sleepier than usual. Even the dogs are Thanksgivinged out, and they didn't even have turkey.

Neither did we, actually. We had fish and chips. At a restaurant. Our friend Jill had the turkey dinner, though. She's a traditional kind of girl.

Not that we weren't festive. We were. At least I was. I usually wait until the weekend after Stuff Your Face Day to start thinking about the Festival of Hysterical Consumerism and Unmet Expectations, but this year I decided to get a jump on things. You'll find out why next week.

It surprises many people when they find out that I have a tiny obsession with Christmas ornaments. I admit to being a tad Grinchy when it comes to the holiday in general, but I'm all for pretty things that I can store in boxes and make lists of.

Here is a picture of some of the ornament storage boxes in the cellar. This is maybe a third of them. What you can't see in this picture is that each individual ornament is nestled in acid-free tissue paper in its own cardboard box, labeled with its name, maker, and piece number. I told you, I like lists.

Patrick says I have way too many ornaments. I say that I have 417 (which I know because of the aforementioned lists) and that there is always room for more. Well, if I buy more acid-free tissue and boxes and storage bins. And a bigger house. But my point stands.

Anyway, yesterday morning I gave in to tradition and hauled all of the ornament storage bins upstairs. The tree I set up the night before so that I could test the lights, which by some miracle all worked flawlessly. This is a lesson I learned last year when I plugged the old tree in and it started to smoke.

Because I am nothing if not festive, I put myself in the holiday mood by watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which as far as I'm concerned is absolutely required holiday watching. That and The Year Without a Santa Claus because it has the Heat Miser in it and he's the best.

As most of my obsessions do, my fascination with ornaments began accidentally. A couple of years ago I was trolling ebay and stumbled upon what I thought was the oddest ornament I'd ever seen. Here it is.

The seller had it listed as a vintage Russian Christmas ornament and called it something like Mushroom Person. I wrote to him asking if he knew more about it, and he said that it was a character from a popular Russian children's book. That's all he knew.

Fast forward a few days. After much googling and going hither and yon I discovered that the book my ornament friend was referring to was Il Romanzo di Cipollino (The Adventures of the Little Onion) by Gianni Rodari. Although little known in North America, Rodari was a very popular Italian writer of books for children, winning the 1970 Hans Christian Andersen Award for his body of work.

But why had Russians made ornaments of characters from his book?

This is where it gets interesting. During World War II, Rodari had been forced to join the Fascist party in order to work as a journalist. However, he was horrified by his experiences (particularly his brother's incarceration in a German prison camp) and in 1944 he joined the Communist Party and became part of the resistance movement.

And this has what to do with Christmas ornaments, you ask?

Fast forward to 1951 and the publication of Il Romanzo di Cipollino. The book is the story of Cipollino, a little onion boy. Cipollino and his family live with a bunch of other vegetable and fruit people in their little town. Everyone is happy. But then along come the wealthy Mr. Tomato and the Orange Duke. They announce that all the land belongs to them and that the villagers have to work the fields and give it all to their masters. Cipollino's father speaks out against the tyrants and is jailed. Cipollino sets out to find him and rescue him. Along the way he's helped by a variety of characters, including the Cherry Boy, the Radish Girl, the Pea Lawyer, and the Mole. Oh, and Dr. Mushroom.

The book has never been translated into English, so I'm going on what I've read of the story and what I've been told by others who have read the Russian version. But you get the idea. It's the story of the rich against the poor, the upper class against the underclass, and ultimately evil against good.

The Communist government of Russia thought this was a delightful story, which it is. But they saw something else in it--an opportunity for self-promotion.


Way back in 1917, when the Communists took over following the Russian Revolution, the celebration of religious holidays was forbidden. But the people were a little cranky about having their holidays taken away from them, so the government took a cue from the Christians and did some syncretization.

See, in Days of Yore (DOY) when the Christians got all gung-ho about making sure everyone knew about Jesus, they encountered a little bit of resistance from the pagans of Britain and Ireland. These folks were pretty happy with their gods and didn't see why they should start worshiping a new one they'd never met before.

The Christians tried beating sense into the pagans, but they found this did little for their popularity, so they hired a PR guy who came up with a brilliant idea. "Hey," he said. "Instead of taking all of the pagan holidays away, why not just kind of smoosh them together with the Christian ones? That way people might not notice."

It worked like this: They picked an already-existing pagan celebration and stuck Jesus into it. Yule (the winter solstice) was already a big deal. It was the time of year when the bleak, dark days of winter were the longest and everyone was pretty well sick of it. But then came the return of the young Oak King, who slew the aging Holly King and brought light back to the world.

Sound familiar? The Christians thought so to, so what they did was just replace the Oak King with the Baby Jesus and there you are. "See," they told the pagans. "You can still have your Yule and your Oak King, only now you have to call them Christmas and Jesus. What? No, no, it's exactly the same. Oh, except if you slip up and use the old names in front of us we'll set you on fire or drop rocks on your heads. Otherwise, you're good to go."

Now back to the Communists. They had a PR guy too, and he looked at how well syncretization had worked for the people trying to get God into a resistant culture and thought it might work just as well in getting God out of a resistant culture.

This is where Cipollino and his friends come in. The Communists knew that no matter what they said the people still wanted their holidays. So they compromised. Christmas celebrations were turned into New Year celebrations. God and the Baby Jesus and all of that went out the window and were replaced with figures that glorified the Communist ideals of national identity and brotherhood.

Christmas ornaments based on figures from traditional Russian folk tales and legends (like Baba Yaga and her house perched atop a chicken foot, left) were already popular. But now ornaments were produced that both subtly and not so subtly reinforced Communist ideals. Ornaments of Soviet cosmonauts were hung on trees beside hammer-and-sickle designs. Cipollino and his friends were turned into whimsical ornaments. Placed on trees, they naturally attracted the attention of children, who were then told the story of the brave onion boy and his longsuffering comrades.

Brilliant, isn't it? Who knew that Christianity and Communism had so much in common?

I find these ornaments fascinating. But when I tried to learn more about them I discovered that most of the Russian sellers knew almost nothing. The person who is probably the most informed expert on their history is actually an American--Kim Balaschak--who discovered the ornaments while living in Moscow and working as an efficiency expert for Russian companies.

It was Kim who got me up to speed on the ornaments and what they really represent. Through her I learned that the ornament generally identified as "a bearded soldier" is actually Ilya Muromets, one of three legendary bogatyrs (knights or heroes) whose exploits are celebrated in Russian folklore. Similarly, the ornament that frequently appears as "a goat" is actually Ivanushka, a boy from the tale "Alyonushka and Ivanushka," in which he is turned into a goat after disobeying his sister.

Okay, yes, the ornaments are a soldier and a goat. But they're so much more than that. There's a rich history behind them that is rapidly disappearing as young Russians raid their grannies' attics to make some money on ebay. Most of them couldn't care less what folktales are represented, or why anyone would make a Christmas tree ornament of a doctor who has the head of a chestnut (another of the Cipollino characters).

But I do, which is why I now have boxes of fragile, chipped Russian ornaments. I have a lot of the ornaments based on Russian folk tales, as well as some of those more obviously intended as propaganda. But the Cipollino ornaments are my favorites, and after several years I now have almost all of them. (We think there are 22, of which I have 16.) Sadly, the ones I don't have might be gone forever. Kim knows of only one complete set, and the ornaments have virtually disappeared from the collector market. My Russian contacts (I love saying that, like I'm a spy or a heroin smuggler) haven't seen them in years and don't think they will. After all, glass doesn't hold up well and many young people think these are junk and simply throw them away when their parents or grandparents die.

Every time I put the Russian ornaments on the tree I think, "If this breaks I can't get another one." All it would take is one of the dogs knocking the tree over for all of this history to be gone. But I do it anyway. I don't like to think of them spending the rest of their lives in boxes. I want them out where I can see them and where other people can see them. I like telling their stories.

I have a ton of other ornaments as well, of the more common variety. And these are fascinating too, some because they're just beautiful (to me anyway) and some because you just have to wonder why anyone would make an ornament of, say, a bellhop. But they did. And there are stories behind some of these as well.

But those will have to wait for another time.

No comments: