Much to do to prepare for Christmas so a quick post on mourning and Christmas in old Russia.
A STRANGE CHRISTMAS PARTY
December and the year had almost unwound themselves. We were among the scantily clothed days at the end of the year. There was now no snow on the ground, or if there were any, it was not of the time; it survived from earlier days when the skies had been prodigal. It rained a little and froze a little and the feeble air blew up in little gusts or lay exhausted in mists. The mists trailed over the withered maize fields or lay listlessly about the green roofs of the village houses, or cleared for a few hours to show the bases of the mountains. I was living in the far South of Russia.
I stood one morning in the little cemetery and looked around me. It seemed the mist had just cleared a space. The graves and the stones and the crosses, the grass and last summer’s withered flowers could be seen quite clearly, and even the low green paling that fenced the graveyard in. But beyond these the mist had dominion. My world had for the time shrunk, and the unknowable boundlessly increased. As I stood there I felt the mist encroaching, encroaching—like oblivion upon memory; as if it would limit even to the seven feet of shadow I cast upon the ground.
Around me were many green wooden crosses, crosses that had weathered many rains and dried in hot suns, and become wet again in mist and rain, or white and green in snow, or silvered in frost. They were all fragile and unstable as if put up for sport by children, and the winds had tumbled them so that they pointed at all angles, as it were, at every star in heaven. Round the necks of the crosses hung little ikons or artificial-flower wreaths, a prayer book, a shape, a token; and below, one read the legend:
“Here lies buried the body of a slave of God.”
It was an ancient graveyard full of dead, and had served several little villages for a century or more. Its fresh dark earth exhaled an incense to the mind, a remembrance of tears and prayers.
Fast underground lie the poor joinered coffins, most of which the moujiks had made for themselves before they died. All the fair form and flesh has vanished away, and with them the personality and lovableness of those whose life’s limit was marked by these crosses. But to the Russian it is the cross planted upon the grave that nullifies the grave, signifying the triumph of Christ over death. No crosses are of stone, and the wood is for him the wood of the Tree of Life.
For there are no dead in Russia … all who have passed the dark portal are alive for evermore.
Suddenly out of the mist a form emerged, as if the mist itself had taken form. An old woman, tall, and bent with age, came slowly forward, gathering sticks here and there as she walked. She did not notice me, but wandered to and fro among the graves. Then as I reflected what she might be doing, a grey-headed crow fluttered down from an unseen tree and balanced itself upon a cross in front of her. Whereupon she turned hurriedly from the bird of evil omen, and I saw that she was a worshipper at a grave. At some distance from me, where little rustic seats had been placed about a grey-green cross, a candle was burning, and a young woman was arranging some tribute upon the low mound—a wreath perhaps. I approached and recognised my neighbour who lives in the house facing the white church on the green.
I did not go nearer, but I saw they had planted a new Christmas tree before a grave, and they had hung it with little ornaments and candles. The old lady lit a little fire with the sticks she had gathered, and the young one, her daughter, spread out a cloth in which was a portion of cake from their Christmas table. They had come to share their rejoicing and their festival with one who had died, a daughter and a sister.
The fire crackled and sent up clouds of blue smoke, and the little lights twinkled on the tree upon the grave. The red and yellow candles gleamed. The liquid mist flowed about the scene like staring ghosts, and I was the only human witness.
Presently, after crossing herself, and kissing the ground, the old lady rose. She placed a little cake upon the mound for the dead one, and took to herself a little, and gave a little to her living daughter; then to myself in my heart the sacred fare also was given, and we made up this strangest Christmas party. There were four present; there were four thousand—the ghosts pressed around in the mist, a mob of the dead. I felt like Ulysses in quest of Tiresias.
She who had died was a beloved daughter, and the tears streamed down the face of the old mother, and though the younger did not weep, I have learned there were as many tears in her heart as in the eyes of the other. The old woman, the babushka, belonged to Old Russia, and the young one belongs to the newest of the new.
I have more to say of them. They took the toys from the tree and gave them to the poor children round about their home, and to these also gave of the cake. For the younger woman had learned the lesson that in the living we can find all our dead again.
Undiscovered Russia, Stephen Graham, 1912
Graham [1884-1975] was a British journalist and travel writer, who wrote several dozen books about Russia, the First World War, social issues, biography, and “tramping.” He began traveling in Russia in the heady, pre-Revolutionary days when a remaking of the world seemed possible and seems to have felt a mystic connection to the peasants, to tramps, and those who toiled on the land.
I have collected several heartbreaking accounts from 19th-century United States newspapers of placing decorated Christmas trees on the graves of children. The practice continues to this day.
If you have an interest in mourning practices and rituals, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.