Red Stars to the Tree Tops
Kim Balaschak, Collector
When I recall the events that occurred during my few short years of serious collecting, I am still astonished at how it all evolved. A collection, once it reaches critical mass, is much like a snowball rolling down a hill. It takes on a life of its own, as has my now encyclopedic collection of antique Russian Christmas and New Year ornaments.
A living history, these ornaments reflect the meaning and significance of the Russian New Year holiday, but also offer deeper insights into the people of this country, their traditions, values and resourcefulness.
On a chilly Saturday at Izmailovo in November 1998, I made my first antique ornament discovery: glass garlands and cotton birds. My first thought was how delightful it would be to decorate our own Christmas tree with these sweet ornaments, so I bought them. The following week, I saw some different ornaments and bought them as well!
Word spread quickly that there was this American woman ‘collecting’ ornaments, although the concept of collecting, to me, was still only a vague notion. One day, Dima, an Izmailovo vendor, presented me with a old dilapidated box of 3-dimensional cardboard animals, explaining that they were pre-war, and ochen redko, or very rare, as indeed they were. Later, another vendor, Sasha, presented me with what appeared to be crudely shaped figures made of cotton batting with paper faces. He said that these cotton angels, with their chromolithographic faces, were Pre-Revolutionary, made in Germany and exported into the Russian Empire during the reign of Czar Nicholas II.
You all know Ded Moroz, or Father Frost, the figure so very popular in wooden form sold today in souvenir markets and shops? Imagine my surprise and delight when I first saw Ded Moroz made of cotton and fabric scraps! And the sweet lady selling him assured me that he was from the 1950s. She remembered when he came into her life; she was just seven years old. It had been her responsibility every year to place him under the tree.
One day, after about a year of acquiring ornaments, I laid them all out on our dining room table and all together they were simply stunning! At that moment I had a revelation: these special ornaments represent all that is positive of the history of this country and are such a contradiction to the reviled Soviet history so often reported in foreign press.
After that, acquiring morphed into collecting. It became a serious, intentional search for new and unique items that could provide additional historical insights into Russia and its people.
As new ornament shapes presented themselves from a variety of sources, I purposefully added them…and added them…until I was decorating not only our tree, but also the All- Russia Museum of Applied, Decorative and Folk Art!
In 2002, thanks to Nestle Foods and many other generous supporters, my entire collection, nearly 2500 New Year ornaments and New Year memorabilia, was exhibited. The concept was embraced by the Russian press and 16,000 visitors in subzero weather lined up down the Garden Ring Road. The museum provided free admission so as to not exclude anyone for economic reasons. Entire families, grandparents, parents and grandchildren came together to see the exhibition, to rekindle and share childhood memories. The exhibition gave new meaning and value to these special ornaments that for decades Russians have been hanging on their trees. Allied Pickfords is kindly looking after the collection until the next opportunity arises to exhibit it. It needs to be shared again and again all over the world.
These ornaments are fragile, but Russia is not. And the New Year that is celebrated today is testimony to its resilience.
The Russian New Year
In one split second, one year becomes the next. People have marked this moment for millenniums. Russians are no exception.
New Year in Pre-revolutionary Russia was, in essence, a prolongation of the celebration of Christmas. Trees were decorated for the Orthodox Christmas on January 7 and remained up through the New Year, a week later. Father Frost visited children and showered them with gifts. The holiday was about giving, sharing and transitioning from one year to the next.
After the revolution, the world changed for citizens of the former Russian Empire. No longer could they celebrate holidays, as they had done prior to 1917. Within a short period, anti-religious and anti-western propaganda emerged. In 1925, the Komsomol Christmas, a document for guiding behaviour and beliefs, appeared in written form, its intention to make atheism a mass phenomenon. A new culture was to be born and in the process, Christmas and its companion, New Year, were annihilated.
The Soviet people worked hard, in fact, six days a week. The Soviet government decided that workers would be easier to manage if they were allowed to celebrate. Thus, on December 28, 1935, 18 years after the Revolution, the ‘Yolka’, officially a New Year tree and celebration, was rehabilitated as an event for children. The first public Yolka was held on January 10, 1937. The actual tree, measuring 15 metres, was called the Main Tree of the Soviet States.
In 1937, the Ministry of Education published a textbook, Yolka in the Kindergarten. Specific instructions for celebrating New Year were spelled out for teachers as it was envisioned that the most Yolka celebrations would be public events for children. (See Insert)
Permission to celebrate New Year ignited the start-up of hundreds of small factories across Soviet Russia as an entire cottage industry of ornament production sprang up. Symbols of Soviet culture and pride abounded in the ornaments, produced in the forms of children in national costume, forest animals, circus characters, sports figures, space and polar exploration, trains and planes and automobiles, pioneers, red stars, samovars and beloved fairy tale figures.
In short, the Russian New Year is a reflection of all that is good in the history of this rich country so many of us call ‘doma’. If you would like to learn more about the various types of ornaments produced during the 70-year period from the late 19th century through the mid-1960s, let me take you through this virtual Passport exhibition. Who knows? Perhaps you will want to add a couple of these treasures to your own holiday celebrations.
Yolka in the Kindergarten, Ministry of Education, 1937
“The New Year holiday should be a celebration of the happy and joyous childhood in our country facilitated by the everlasting care of the Party, the Government and personally by Comrade Stalin.
Children love the New Year tree and anxiously anticipate its arrival. The tree should be decorated, multi-colored and very beautiful. There should not be too many performances or complicated costumes else the children will become more tired than happy. Children should not be allowed into the room in which the tree is being decorated. It is better to show them the New Year tree in its full splendor.
The children freely, not in pairs, come into the hall. Teachers should not greet the children with loud exclamations and congratulations or attempt to draw the children’s attention to this or that decoration. Let them get accustomed to the atmosphere and contemplate the beautiful tree.
Every child should receive a gift. It is preferable if gifts are given out by Grandfather Frost, the Bear or the Hare. A piece of candy is far sweeter when received from the Hare.
As for the ornaments, children like to see well-known heroes of fairy tales, animals, chains of flat figures, flowers, insects, birds, snowflakes, airplanes and parachutes. The tree absolutely should be topped with a bright, five-pointed red or silver star.
The decorations located out of the children’s’ reach should be bright, while the middle branches should be decorated with ornaments that children enjoying looking at. Decorate the lower branches with ornaments that children love, such as cotton monkeys, bears and dolls, in order to give the impression that these figures are actually living on the tree.
The celebration can culminate with the roar of an engine and the subsequent arrival of Grandfather Frost”.
Chronology of Ornament Production
During the last decade of the 19th century up to the Revolution, most of the ornaments in the Russian Empire came directly from Germany or were produced in St. Petersburg, the only ornament factory in Russia, using German materials, such as chromolithographed faces.
After the Revolution, supply of materials from Germany was immediately cut off and the St. Pete factory closed. There is no recorded ornament production in Soviet Russia until from 1917 until 1936.
From 1936 to the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union was in its heyday of ornament production. The finest ornaments, handmade, hand-painted and mouth-blown, were produced during these thirty years, reflecting the essence of the changing lives of the citizens.
After the mid-1960’s, mass production became the norm and the resulting ornaments were far less interesting from an applied arts viewpoint, although still beautiful in their own rite.
Ornaments can be classified thematically and by the type of material used in their production. Some ornament types were produced over a long periods of time, 20-30 years, and then virtually disappeared as economic conditions evolved, people’s preferences changed and new technology came into vogue.
Fortunately, keen interest has once again sparked for ornaments of the past that reflect a different life, ornaments that help us connect to how it must have felt to live back in those times when….everything was bigger, brighter and simpler.
Ah, such are the magical feelings of nostalgia… Pre-Revolutionary ornaments (1890’s-1917) can be found in shapes of Father Frost, angels, children, animals and decorative gift boxes. Scraps are ornaments made with a chromolithographic component glued to other materials, such as tinsel, wire and cotton batting.
Cardboard ornaments, made of elaborately constructed and decorated cardboard pieces, are often referred to as “Dresdens” as they were first produced in the Dresden, Germany.
Soviet ornaments produced between the years of 1936-1966 are made from a variety of materials.
Cottons, made in the shapes of people, animals, fruits and vegetables, resulted from cotton wool being twisted, shaped, painted, lacquered and decorated with a face made from clay, paper mache or fabric.
Soviet cardboards, simpler in form than their Pre- Revolutionary predecessors and produced in mass quantities, provided an inexpensive way to decorate a tree.
Geometrics were Russian versions of the popular Czechoslovakian ornaments made from small glass beads and tubes, strung together by copper or steel wire into a myriad of shapes.
Glass ornaments were first produced in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s using techniques borrowed from the Germans. Ornaments were made in hanging form and later, in the 1950s, mounted on clips. Popular subjects included fairy tale characters, winter, home, garden, forest, circus, space, garden, forms of transportation and musical instruments. Sets of miniature ornaments, replicas of standard size ornaments, were also produced in the early 1960’s for use in city apartments on tabletop trees.
Copper wire was twisted into shapes, such as flowers and stars. Popular in the late 1950s as gifts for children, metal purses and canisters were given out at public Yolka celebrations. The subjects painted on these containers reflected important current events.
Most porcelain factories in Soviet Russia produced a Snow Maiden figure, while Father Frost figures were less common. Although popular now at craft markets, wood-crafted ornaments were not common during the 30-year period from 1936-1966.
Candlelight served to illuminate trees prior to the revolution and briefly after the reinstatement of the holiday in 1935. However, by the early 1940’s, electric lights were the norm in most households, with figural light bulbs introduced in 1950.
The New Year was memorialized in numerous forms. Soviet painters found its essence. Posters for events, postcards for personal greetings, magazines and newspapers, captured countless special moments. Invitations, costumes, masks, music…all an integral part of the Yolka, all vital to creating the unique atmosphere of a Russian New Year.
Ñ ÍÎÂÛÌ ÃÎÄÎÌ!