Merry Christmas... it’s today if you live in Russia!

JANUARY 7 — So that was it, Christmas is over and done with for another year. It’s time to put the decorations away and get back to normal life.

Well, actually, not quite. Because for millions of Europeans, the festive season is still in full swing.

Spanish children, for example, are this weekend celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings, the traditional bearer of presents whose role has managed to survive the more recent imposition of a fat old man sporting a long beard and wearing a big red coat.

The Three Kings arrive in Spain, and Latin American countries, on January 6 and deposit gifts for children, who eagerly await the arrival of these strange beings by leaving empty boots outside the front door, hoping they will be stuffed full of presents by the generous visitors.

For such a sociable place, it’s appropriate that the festival also has a very public dimension in Spain, with every town and city large and small the length and breadth of the country staging processions where the Three Kings are carried through the streets, often by camels, scattering packets of boiled sweets to the happy masses gathered on the pavements.

This is all very different from the way Christmas is celebrated in most other countries, and when you think about it, it really makes a lot more sense — if anything in the Christmas story makes “sense” — for gifts to be delivered in this manner.

After all, the story of Jesus’s birth does not contain a couple of chapters on the surprise stopover of an elderly visitor from the North Pole, borne on a makeshift chariot by flying reindeer.

The Bible does, however, tell us about the arduous journey undertaken by the three wise men, who are eager to pay tribute to the newly-born Son of God by making a personal visit and delivering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

As Christmas is designed to retell and celebrate the birth of Jesus, it’s therefore much more logical for presents to be delivered by the Three Kings rather than by Santa Claus, so Spain’s ability to keep this particular ritual alive can only be welcomed and encouraged by traditionalists.

They won’t, however, be quite so happy with some of the modern interpretations of the story which are becoming increasingly prominent with every passing year.

As dawn breaks over St Petersburg today, the people there will celebrate Christmas as it falls not on December 25 but January 7 in Russia. — AFP pic
As dawn breaks over St Petersburg today, the people there will celebrate Christmas as it falls not on December 25 but January 7 in Russia. — AFP pic

In Madrid this weekend, for instance, there has been quite a bit of an outcry after it was revealed that one of the Three Kings taking centre stage in the annual parade in the famously left-wing district of Vallecas was notorious drag queen “La Prohibida” (The Forbidden).

The promotion of gay and lesbian rights might be a central part of contemporary cultural life across much of western Europe, but it’s not exactly a strong theme in the Bible, so this sacrilegious “casting” decision has predictably been met with fierce opposition among traditionalists who believe, quite understandably, that parading through the streets a gay man dressed as a woman is not the most appropriate way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

That sort of thing would certainly not happen in Russia, where homosexuality is technically legal but still greatly frowned upon and widely discriminated against.

So there won’t be any drag queens strutting their stuff across the Red Square today (it’s too cold for strutting, for starters), but there will be plenty of other celebrations throughout the country because Christmas Day in Russia is not, as it is nearly everywhere else, on December 25, but actually takes place today, January 7.

While the rest of the world is refilling school classrooms and office blocks as memories of Christmas holidays fade into the distance, Russians are still in the middle of their festive season and will enjoy another day off tomorrow as one of the many national holidays around this time of the year.

This hadn’t been the case for particularly long, however, because during the long decades of communist rule Russia was officially an atheist country, and Christmas was not marked at all (except by a few old people who insisted on retaining their old church-visiting habits).

There was, though, a suspiciously Santa-like character, Grandfather Frost, who made his annual appearance on New Year’s Eve — a celebration the communist rulers were happy to endorse — and delivered presents to the children after being pulled along at breathtaking speeds by horses. Sound familiar?

Three Kings, Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, drag queens... I don’t know about you, but all these variations on a festive theme make me think we should appreciate a little bit more just how random and temporal our traditions are.

We celebrate certain things in a certain manner and maintain certain rituals with certain activities, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Depending on the stories we tell each other, our favourite festive figures of fun might be an old man with a beard, a wise man from the east, or a camped-up homosexual. Or something entirely different. Or nothing at all. It just depends on circumstances which have been historically passed down and are largely beyond our individual control.

So as much as we might feel the need to vehemently support some customs whilst viciously decrying others, perhaps we’d be better served by trying to see them all with a sense of perspective, and not taking any of them too seriously.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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