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‘Corncobs to Cosmonauts’ explores the holidays during Soviet era at Museum of Russian Icons

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The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, presents “Corncobs to Cosmonauts: Redefining the Holidays during the Soviet Era,” an exhibition that will transform the Museum’s West Gallery into a Russian winter wonderland from Nov. 9 to Jan. 27, 2019. The centerpiece of the exhibition will be more than 150 Soviet-era ornaments displayed alongside various-sized and decorated “New Year’s Trees,” together with holiday toys, books and cards.

Cosmonaut ornament, Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Mass.

Photo: Museum of Russian Icons Cosmonaut ornament, Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Mass.

The majority of the ornaments have been donated to the Museum of Russian Icons by collector Frank Sciacca. The ornaments depict a variety of non-religious objects that were important to both the average Russian citizen and the Soviet state. These include folk heroes and cartoon characters, funny clowns and chubby babies, state emblems and objects that celebrate the productivity of farms and factories. 

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the anti-religion Bolsheviks discouraged Christmas and New Year celebrations in the U.S.S.R. since the gift giving and extravagance that accompanied the holidays came to symbolize the greed and excess of the aristocracy and bourgeois classes. The tradition of celebrating Novy God (New Year) re-appeared in 1935 as a secular holiday that would symbolize Soviet children’s prosperity and happiness.

 The New Year’s tree, or yolka, was repurposed as the main symbol of the celebration but with all religious references removed. The Red Army’s ruby star replaced the tree-topping star of Bethlehem; and the tree was decorated with non-religious ornaments depicting animals, plants, Kremlin architecture, airplanes and the communist hammer and sickle. After the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, figures of cosmonauts, rockets, satellites and planets became popular. Ornaments that celebrated the country’s achievements in agriculture — like peppers, grapes, and carrots — were sold during Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s time; the most popular being corncobs because of Khrushchev’s infamous “corn campaign” that was introduced as a solution to livestock shortages. The custom of decorating Christmas trees had initially been introduced to Russia by Peter the Great, after he visited Europe during the 1700s.

The Russian fairytale figure, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) was said to travel in a horse-drawn sleigh accompanied by his beautiful granddaughter, Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden), to deliver gifts to children to place under the New Year’s tree. He carries a staff, wears valenki, or felt boots, and is carried across Russia in a troika, or a vehicle led by three horses, instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

In the early years of the Soviet regime, Ded Moroz was portrayed as an unacceptable link to old Russia. In later years he became the symbol of Novy God, a move taken by the government as a way to stop the advance of the western tradition of Santa Claus. Ornaments and statues of Ded Moroz, sometimes with Snergurochka, became popular decorations for New Year’s trees and family rooms during winter festivities.

Russians, who account for 39 per cent of the world’s Orthodox Christians, were allowed to celebrate Christmas once again after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But old habits die hard and the Christmas festivities, held on Jan. 7 in accordance with the old Julian calendar, are still overshadowed by big New Year celebrations, which are more like the Western Christmas. 

In celebration of the “Corncobs to Cosmonauts” exhibition, vintage and modern Russian ornaments, Christmas and holiday décor, and gifts will be on sale in the museum shop throughout the holiday season.

For more information on the Museum of Russian Icons visit museumofrussianicons.org.

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