Telling the winter away

It’s Russian Orthodox Christmas, and Russian Orthodox winter weather. I love weather this cold. It’s so perfectly clean and sharp and uncompromising. It’s too cold for the snow to melt into slush, only to harden into slick grey rivers of ice. When the sun sets the snowy fields seem to glow pink from the inside. The moon turns them absolute, pure blue.

It’s weather as it should be, as it is on the Christmas cards, in the fairy tales. When there is a warm house to come home to, hot crumpets and ginger tea; when father Frost, cracking his long fingers, wraps abandoned Marfa in furs and sends her home to her wicked stepmother with gifts of silver and gold – then it is more than bearable.

This is what Orthodox Christmas is like now in a tiny Ukrainian village, in temperatures lower than this, in a house pretty much identical to one built a hundred years ago, to a house in a Russian fairytale:

No sign of kolyadki (carols) or Christmas. The only people on the street are waiting for the bus, which trundles through all lit up and steamy-windowed and crammed with passengers in fat padded coats, like a little travelling fragment of civilization that all too soon passes on and leaves behind the introverted houses and empty ice-blown street and silent woods under their weight of snow. A wicked wind blowing, loaded with snow as fine as smoke, and yet there are drifts already piled knee-deep in corners. The cottages are curled in on themselves, doors and windows firmly closed, and I suppose inside them everyone is curled up on their Russian stoves like bears hibernating, waiting out the winter.

Baba Lena falls asleep at 6pm, so she can get up at an unmentionable pitch-black 3am to chop the pumpkin for the goats and feed the chickens who live in the hallway for the winter, fat and roosting in the darkness. She dreamed of piglets three days before we arrived, and guessed from it that she would be getting visitors. A frivolous dream for such a hard place as this. So we are the three little pigs.

The day slips past with excruciating slowness. The light outside the frost-patterned window turns briefly blue. Then night comes and with it the feeling that it’s time for bed – but it’s only five o’ clock. Reading even the best book palls. There’s nothing on the two channels the ancient TV picks up except glossy adverts for things so irrelevant to the village as to be incomprehensible – flights to distant countries, mobile phones, sanitary towels for immaculate young women in airports, bars, sparkling gyms. There is nothing to tidy, nothing to cook. The pack of cards contains only thirty-two cards. There are coloured chalks but no paper. You think of knitting socks, playing at riddles, of knotting rag rugs or stitching the embroidered linen sheets and towels that will one fine day be your dowry.

Outside, up and over the hill the winter and the woods stretch forever, inscribed with the paws of fox and hare, the dainty slots of deer, wide-spaced hoofs of elk, a crowd of cloven prints from galloping wild pigs.

Baba Lena tells us the story of the maddened elk that chased a hunter right into the village street before expiring on the doorstep of the korchma (pub). We are sitting on the stove top, luxuriating like Ilya Muromets in glorious soporific warmth, and this is how to get through the awful hardship of winter, this is what the winter is for: telling tales of devils and witches and wild beasts, bold black-browed girls and brave Cossacks, the unspeakable exploits of the neighbours and the village headman who once upon a time met Catherine the Great on her way to Crimea…

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