Three days or so before Christmas all markets and squares were like a great forest of fir-trees. And what fir-trees they were! Russia is very rich in them. The ones here are thin and brittle. The Russian fir-tree, after it warmed up and spread its branches, was like a conifer thicket.
Moscow’s Theatre Square was like a thick forest. All trees stood there, covered in snow. And when it snowed, you could literally get lost! Traders were dressed in thick coats, as if they worked in the woods. And people were walking there, choosing a tree.
My word, the dogs looked like wolves in those fir-trees. The fires were burning, for people to warm up. The smoke was billowing in huge clouds. And in the thickness of the trees the sellers of sbiten were shouting: “Here, sweet sbiten, hot kalach!” Sbiten was everywhere – in samovars, in buckets with long handles. What is sbiten? My, it is so hot, and better than tea. It is a drink with honey and ginger, fragrant and sweet. One glass cost one copeck.
The roll was frosted, and a glass with sbiten was thick and faceted, it burned your fingers. Sbiten was nice to drink in that snowy forest. You sipped the drink, and your breath went up in clouds, like in a steam train. The roll was a veritable icicle, so you had to dunk it in sbiten, to make it softer. And so you walked in those fir-trees till late. The frost was getting bitterer. The foggy sky was burning purple. The branches were covered in frost. Now and again you would stumble on a frozen crow that crackled like a piece of glass.
Frosty may be Russia but… warm!
On Christmas Eve, we usually did not eat until the first star. Kutya was cooked with rye and honey, and so was stewed fruit: prunes, pears, and dried peaches…They were put on a heap of hay, under the icons.
Why did we do so? This was like a gift to Christ. Well, as if He was there in the manger, on that hay.
As you were waiting for that star, you would wipe all windows in the house. The glass was all covered with ice because of the frost. Oh, dear, how beautiful that ice was! There were fir-trees and wonderful streaks, all lace-like. You would scratch it with your nail: is there a star to be seen? There is indeed! First, there was one, then another. The glass turned blue. The stove was crackling because of the frost, the shadows were galloping, and the stars were lighting up one by one. And what stars they were!.. You would open a window pane, and the frosty air would sear you with its bitterness. Oh, those stars..! They were trembling and twinkling, and the black sky was boiling with their light. Oh, what stars! They were live and whiskered, and they were breaking into pieces that blinded your eyes. The air was so cold that it made stars appear bigger, and they shone like coloured crystals, sending down the arrows: azure, and blue, and green. And you would also hear the tinkle, as if it was coming from those stars! It was icy and resonant, like a silver bell was ringing. There was nothing like this, ever. In the Kremlin, when the bells rang, the peal was ancient, sedate, and very deep. And this starry peal was from tight silver bells, all velvety. It seemed like a thousand churches were ringing their bells at once. You would not hear such sound on any other day. At Easter, the bells were chiming, and at Christmas, it was a silvery hum that spread for miles and miles, like a song that had neither a beginning nor the end…
Translated from Russian by Julia Shuvalova.
Ivan Shmelyov, Christmas, part 1.