By Jeffrey Folks
I lived for two years in Eastern Europe, during and shortly after the end of the Communist era. In those two years, my wife and I celebrated a traditional Christmas, complete with festive decorations, Christmas cards, modestly wrapped gifts, a holiday meal, and a two-foot plastic Christmas tree that we came upon at the local market. Though our holiday was quite simple, Christmas was nonetheless celebrated joyfully in our hearts. It was accompanied by the knowledge that this day is indeed special because it commemorates the origin of a redemptive faith in human potential. The communist state could not keep us or others among the ex-pat and local population from reciting the biblical story of the birth of Christ.
What it could do was prohibit all public manifestations of the profound religious tradition that had once dominated the hearts and minds of most Eastern Europeans.
I recall trudging through the snow to classes scheduled for Christmas Day — trudging for two miles each way to avoid riding the absurdly overcrowded buses reeking of unwashed humanity. It seemed odd to find faculty conducting classes as usual and students milling about the university cafeteria, and not a word to suggest that the day was different from any other. There were no greetings of “Merry Christmas,” no exchanges of cards or presents, no looks of anticipation or wonder.
What was celebrated instead was the secular holiday of New Year. Special market tables had been set up offering a meager selection of cheaply printed New Year’s cards and miserable trinkets for the children: wooden pop guns, cheap plastic dolls, and an especially dubious treat — a rubber chicken already plucked of its feathers. With classes and work suspended for the holiday, families gathered for New Year’s meals and fellowship. Meanwhile, state television broadcast the same old promises: the advent of another remarkable year of sham efficiencies and faked production quotas.