A high school in Soviet-occupied Estonia in the late 1970’s had formed a small “reading theater” group who went from one government and commercial establishment to another, reciting verse and performing poetic sketches.
Of the four girls picked for the group, two were dressed as bunnies and two as elves. The children performed, the audience listened and handed out candy at the end of the performance.
In late December “Happy New Year, comrades” was the usual farewell ending each session. But when the children were presenting their 10th performance they shouted as one voice “Merry Christmas comrades” to leading members of a trade union. It was followed by audience shock and an embarrassingly long silence. The teacher was white as a sheet. The children didn’t understand the tension or the hilarity when the officials finally broke out in laughter.
This was the totalitarian complexity of the Christmas season. Did the officials laugh out of nervousness, at the naïveté of the children, to cover their own embarrassment, at the absurdity of an open acknowledgment of Christmas or to show their own “generosity of spirit” in not chastising the perpetrators?
During the occupation it was expected that any public references to Christmas would be done by using the code word “Näärid” – New Year. “Näärivana” was code for Father Christmas (Jõuluvana). “Nääripuu” for Christmas tree (jõulupuu). “Näärikaardid” for Christmas cards (jõulukaardid).
A short verse underlying the ideological silliness made the circuit: Dear sweet Näärivana, Where the heck is Santa Claus, Sent to Siberia I bet, Because he wasn’t a commie. (Roughly translated).
In the privacy of one’s own home Christmas was still celebrated. The Christmas tree was in place and decorated by December 24th. Christmas dinner fare was unmistakable – blood sausage, sauerkraut, kringel with all the recognizable trimmings. The time-honoured traditions of pre-occupation Estonia were widely observed within family circles, but in public, ostensibly in the name of “Näärid.”
One could celebrate politically unacceptable holidays as long as it wasn’t flouted, done as an in-your-face demonstration to vent anti-party feelings. December 24 and 25 were ordinary working days with no flexibility or latitude for believers. In fact some people recall party officials deliberately setting a meeting or lecture on the evening of December 24, to spoil the family plans of many.
Western fellow travellers of the time can easily compare the repressive policies of the occupying Soviet power to the consciously inhibitive political correctness of today. Equivalency between the two social systems does not exist. Political correctness is wrapped in the infatuation with sensitivity, the insistence on not offending, the desire to express “feel-good” euphemisms.
Communist party expectations resulted in direct suppression of free will, the submission of individuality to party doctrine, and physical or psychological harassment of those considered ideologically unreliable.
In that spirit we wish you a “Merry Christmas,” not “Season’s Greetings.”
Happy New Year (but I really mean Christmas) (15)