January 01, 1997

Once Upon a Fir Tree in a Forest

If there is any tree in Russia which stands next to the birch tree, priority-wise, it is definitely the fir tree (yolka).

Obviously, this is all very subjective — you could say that the rowan tree, which mesmerized famous Russian poets Marina Tsvetayeva and Sergei Yesenin is no less popular. So why the fir tree? Because it’s winter, you might say. But, then again, rowanberries are especially sweet in January when the frost is hard. So what makes a yolka more important — maybe the famous exclamation yolki-palki (kind of a ‘goddam it’) with its numerous synonyms — yolki zelyoniye, yolki-motalki etc.?

But the reason we opt for the fir tree is much more simple: as devoted Russian Life readers know, besides the well-known New Year’s holiday on January 1, Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7. As such, the fir tree has become an inalienable part of the New Year — and Christmas too — even though not many Russians know that this custom actually came to Russia via Germany. The first Christmas trees were trimmed in Russia in the mid 1840s. Although the custom originated in the households of rich Russian city dwellers, soon the less well-heeled followed suit, eventually creating a festive holiday tradition common to both the cities and the villages.

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