Stalin would have loved it

NS Christmas - 25 December used to be a day like any other in Moscow. That has all changed

When I first moved to Russia ten years ago, I found myself going into the office on 25 December. Not because I was some sort of professional martyr, you understand, but be-cause it was just another working day.

I attempted to observe the occasion, but it really wasn't the same. The previous week, with great difficulty, I'd obtained a frozen turkey to cook when I got home from work on Christmas Day. It didn't defrost until the early hours of the following morning. My Russian boyfriend's mother had kept it on her balcony for a week, as it was colder out there than in the freezer.

Nowadays in Moscow, getting a turkey for Kreestmas (a word that has passed into Russian) is not eccentrically English, but wildly fashionable.

There is a certain kudos to treating 25 December as a special day. One traditionally minded friend, Inga, a teacher, is appalled: "They all celebrate it, our so-called gilded youth," she sniffs, referring to Russia's zolotaya molodezh, the super-rich children of New Russians who make much of squandering their inheritance. Now in their late teens and early twenties, many of them live abroad, returning to Moscow at weekends to party. Kreestmas will certainly be no exception. "They live their lives as if they are westerners, so they might as well follow your calendar," Inga mumbles. Her friend Masha disagrees that it is something to be disdainful about. Celebrating Kreestmas is a sign of class, she says: "The intelligentsia always marked 25 December throughout communist times. It was a sign that a family was educated." Inga is not impressed.

One reason for its popularity in Moscow is that there are next to no fixed traditions attached to the Russian Orthodox Christmas - Rozhdestvo - which falls on 7 January. Banned until perestroika, no one seems to know how to celebrate poor old Rozhdestvo. It is proving easier to adopt a ready-made western festival, even if it falls on the wrong day. And so the expressions "na Kreestmas podarit" (to give something for Christmas), "shto ty delayesh na Kreestmas?" (what are you doing for Christmas?) are increasingly common - and ever so slightly cool.

Kreestmas cards, fairy lights and stockings are all for sale in Moscow's stores, imported traditions that would have meant nothing a decade ago. Inga is distraught that there is nothing available to buy in Moscow that depicts Ded Moroz, the Russian Grandfather Frost. "Grandfather Frost is a far more colourful character. But you can't find any decorations or cards with him on - it's all Santa Claus, Santa Claus, Santa Claus."

Grandfather Frost is taller and skinnier, and has a longer, wispier beard than Santa Claus. He looks a little like Tolstoy.

Grandfather Frost fans stubbornly refer to Kreestmas as "western Rozhdestvo" (rather like those French who prefer la fin de semaine over le weekend), and Inga herself has developed a complicated hierarchy of Russian yuletide dates. "New Year comes first because it was the replacement for Christmas during the Soviet period. In second place, 13 January - the 'Old New Year' according to the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind. Then 7 January - Russian Orthodox Christmas." Finally and begrudgingly, in fourth place, she mentions "your Catholic Kreestmas, 25 December - but I stress that it is not a date to be taken seriously".

This puritanism is not confined to the older generation. Last year Strelki, Russia's answer to the Spice Girls, showed their disdain for Kreestmas by recording a cover version of Wham's "Last Christmas", pointedly called "S Novym God-om" (Happy New Year): "Like in a fairy tale New Year arrives,/A million lights spark up on the tree,/I see all my lovely friends,/Today we're together, together."

After all, during communist times, New Year was Christmas: you bought a New Year's tree, exchanged New Year's gifts at midnight and ate 12 grapes with each chime of the clock. The atheist Bolsheviks banned the New Year's tree (yelka) in 1918 because they looked too much like Christmas trees, but Stalin, a sentimentalist at heart, reintroduced them in 1935 (boy, would he have loved Kreestmas).

For many, New Year remains the celebration that feels most Russian, blending Soviet traditions with pre-tsarist ones. It is still the day when Russians' favourite film is screened annually - Irony of Fate - or "Enjoy Your Bath" - in which the hapless Zhenya gets drunk at the sauna on New Year's Eve and ends up forgetting where he lives (no, really, it's a good film).

This nostalgic feeling is gaining ground and, in some quarters, the Kreestmas backlash is beginning. The Russian media have cottoned on to what they call the "Big Fat Kreestmas Hypocrisy".

One newspaper reports that it is not a proper festival after all and - gasp - just an excuse to make people spend money: "Kreestmas is just a commercial money-spinner; businesses make huge profits out of it." It has been tarred with the same brush as Hallowe'en and Valentine's Day - never previously celebrated in Russia, but now hugely popular with young people desperate for any excuse to party.

To compensate for this disappointment in our hollow capitalist festivals, the least we in the west can do is to raise a glass to the Day of the Constitution of the Russian Federation on 12 December - still a public holiday in Russia.

If the Duma passes legislation to ban this day (first instigated in 1993 by that ultimate party guy, Boris Yeltsin) and, instead, to turn the whole Kreestmas period into a fortnight's holiday, this year's constitutional booze-up may well be the last.

All my lovely friends together now: "Na zdorovie."