2 Months of Christmas for an Atheist: Part 1
Being born on the ruins of a fallen USSR empire I grew up in a post-soviet Ukraine where the main and biggest holiday of them all continued to be a New Year’s Eve. Since 1920’s New Year was set up as a true communist holiday as opposed to Christmas. But old habits were dying so slow that tradition of gathering for the Orthodox Christmas (January 7) outlived the Soviet State itself. As my mom recalls we always had long winter holidays and never threw out the tree until 14th of January — the Old New Year (New Year by the orthodox Julian calendar). And sometimes celebrated up to 19th (Christening of Water).
I’ve proudly boasted to Europeans about this nearly month’s worth of celebrations up until this year. Having moved to Cardiff I now was faced with mission impossible — to survive not one but two winter months of “Jolly Merry Christmas Wonderland” considering that in UK it all starts in the beginning of December when a seasonal British depression they call “winter holidays” sets in.
Apparently in the Capital of Wales the chance of snow is so miserable and the sad rainy months so long that preparation for Christmas started already in September. Catching holiday fever by December I’ve already bought and sent a present to my family (this favorite local pleasure the British can do for weeks took me about 2 hours), made a picture of a four-meter high reindeer in front of the Castle, took part in three different ‘Secret Santa’ games at work and got surprised by a ‘Cardiff London Eye’ moving from the waterfront to Central Square. (Some imagine that it was rolled by gnomes down City road in the middle of the night). After fourth or fifth Christmas party in “Dec(nov)ember” rainy Cardiff I understood that the British will never stop drinking and it’s time to run before “jolly reindeer cocktails” would finish me off.
Survival mode and the remaining 2 weeks of Schenghen visa brought me to Paris to one of my oldest university friends who’s long became ‘a true European’ (meaning she started complaining about migrants sleeping on metro stations).
Luckily in Paris no one seemed to catch the holiday spirit infection, and to get rid of Secret and Obvious Santas we decided to celebrate 24th in the least Christmasy way: at the cemetery. By chance in the morning I agreed meet up with my friend who was a born and raised proud Paris native (Bellville) and who came to meet Christmas with her family. Walking around Pere Lachaise, the “largest and greenest park area in Paris”, as Fiore proudly mentioned, we were wondering Christmas decorations on some of the graves and comparing what’s considered “holiday fun” in UK and France.
‘British love gathering and drinking their faces off. Parisians love gathering, drinking and philosophizing about everything. We are using intellectual fights like cocaine. And our favorite subject is history.’ — she said.
Just to prove her point we immediately met a 50-ish looking Parisian man with long disheveled hair, light jacket and a scarf (of course), who was guiding a couple of innocent tourists through the gravestones in our direction.
We asked him about Wilde’s grave. But when he understood we were Ukrainians he immediately directed us to ‘the real reason any Ukrainian should visit Pere Lachaise’:
‘Of course not Wilde! Makhno! Crematorium — barbecue — number 6685! — Makhno, you have to see Makhno!’
We thanked our unexpected advisor and continued aimlessly looking around. Unlike French, Ukrainian history is written only by the winner, so the figure of the anarchist Nestor Makhno who set up a “free republic” in the vast fields of 1917 Eastern Ukraine was always viewed as some extravagant mistake.
But when a Parisian tour guide (or the destiny itself) wants you to see something, it’s very difficult to say ‘no’. In five minutes we met again. This time without any unnecessary shyness the guide reached for my friend’s hand and scribbled numbers of Makhno’s grave in ballpoint pen ‘6685’.
‘He’s buried on the second level. Next to Isedora Dunkan,’ — added the guide. ‘Do you know Isedora Dunkan was a wife of…’
‘Sergei Esenin, a poet. Yes.’ — I nodded and the man nearly cried with happiness. He reached somewhere inside his coat (I was hoping there was no gun in there). And then out of this woolen nowhere took out an enameled picture (like the ones they put on graves in Russian cemeteries) of our famous poet Sergey Esenin. On the reverse side was, of course, Isedora lying on a sofa in a theatrical pose.
Feeling that my friend is the most vulnerable out of us three, he then reached out for her scarf and pulled it, demonstrating how Isedora Dunkan died strangled by her silk scarf getting stuck in the wheel of her own car.
After this kind of destined introduction we just had to go and see the burial sights of Makhno and Isedora. To our greatest surprise the plates with their names were covered in kisses and inscriptions of gratitude in all languages. People claiming that both changed their lives, gave hope to humanity and such and promises to come celebrate 1917 Revoluntion’s anniversary next year. Pere Lachaise turned out to be the most ‘alive’ cemetery I’ve ever seen, with all those people whose ashes are visited so often in that second level overlooking busy streets of Bellville.
We walked outside the walls of Pere Lachaise back to living, breathing and mildly celebrating Parisian crowds to breethe, talk and have our very simple very un-Christmasy wine and cheese dinner.
Now after a month of Western European Christmas holidays I still had the New Year to meet— and the January part.
(About accidentally waking up in 2017 and ‘borrowing’ a fir tree for Orthodox Christmas —to be continued in Part 2).