Monday, December 1, 2014

Celebrating a Russian Christmas in Cavendish

As part of understanding the heritage of the many countries that Cavendish residents have come from, this holiday season the Cavendish Historical Society (CHS) is celebrating Russia.

While many will immediately think of Cavendish’s connection with the famous Russian writer and Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who lived in our town for 18 of the 20 he was in exile, the first Russians came to our area in the early 1900s.

While an influx of Russian Jews settled in Burlington, Vermont in the late 1800s because of religious persecution, economic opportunity is what brought Russian immigrants to Claremont, Springfield and Cavendish. In Claremont, they came from the provinces of Minsk, Wilensk, and Grodnensk, which were between Moscow and Warsaw near the Polish border. Since the Gays went to Eastern Europe to recruit workers for their Cavendish mill, it is expected that many of Cavendish’s Russian immigrants came from similar areas.

Former Cavendish postmaster Sophie Snarski’s family was an example of what were known as  “chain immigrants”- they came to the area because relatives who settled here told them to come because there was work. Sophie described her family as being from a part of Eastern Europe that “sometimes we were Polish and sometimes we were Russian.” Learning Polish from her parents, she also picked up quite a bit of Russian. “It wasn’t very good Russian,” she would add.

While Cavendish does not have a Russian Orthodox Church, Springfield and Claremont both started congregations in the early 1900s, which continue today.  

Peter the Great
Soviet era tree ornament
Not only do customs and traditions very throughout Russia, but significant alterations where made during the Soviet era. 

Thanks to the influence of the Tsar Peter the Great and his travels to Europe,  Christmas was celebrated in Russia on December 25, complete with Christmas trees, gifts and even St. Nicholas. After the 1917 Revolution, along with other religious holidays, Christmas was banned. While the religious aspects of the holiday would not reappear again until 1992 with the fall of communism, in the 1930s, Stalin thought it would create a more stable society by having rituals and traditions.

Father Frost and Snow Maiden
Reinstating many of the folk customs, the focus was on New Years not Christmas. Instead of Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, Ded Moroz, Father Frost, who is often accompanied by his granddaughter and helper Snegurochka, Snow Maiden, brings the presents on New Years Eve. The tree, complete with decorations, lights and stars, is also reserved for New Years. 

The Christmas season begins November 28 and goes until January 6. All dates are given according to the Old Style calendar used by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is 13 days later than the secular calendar. The official Christmas and New Years holiday in Russia lasts from Dec. 31 (New Year’s Eve) to January 10 but some Russians are now observing Christmas on December 25.  Learn more by watching the two part series How to Celebrate Russian Christmas. 

Many of those who came to Cavendish, were from villages, where it would have been customary to place a sheaf of the year’s grain crop and decorate it with ribbons. If you notice the swags on the Museum and Cavendish Stone Church, you’ll see that these traditions continue. Instead of wheat, it’s likely that many of our Russian immigrants would have used flax, once grown in Cavendish, as well as other items found in nature-birch and pinecones.

On December 22, CHS will be holding a series of workshops for the students of the Cavendish Town Elementary School (CTES) where the students will engage in a “hands on activity,” as well as sample Russian Christmas goodies, as follows:
K: Matryohska doll ornaments
1st & 2nd Grade Gzhel style pottery Christmas cards (stenciling)
3rd Grade snowflake chains and ballerinas
4th Grade  Pointed star in one snip decorated in Russian patterns
5th Grade Christmas trees that can also be a gift container or an ornament
6th Grade Star ornament made with twigs

A very special note of thanks to Svetlana Phillips, who now lives in Cavendish, but who grew up in the Ukraine during the Soviet era and like many had parents that were both Russian and Ukrainian. Svetlana has shared many of her stories, recipes and materials to help CHS organize this event.

If you are interested in helping with a workshop, please contact or call 802-226-7807.

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