By Alexandra Pakina, participant of The Odessa Review journalism seminar and workshop
The New Year is on its way. The city adorns itself with festive decorations. Christmas trees, bright shop windows and lights are creating the New Year atmosphere. The air is suffused with the spirit of upcoming holidays. The city storefronts, balconies and building facades are competing to have the best holiday ensemble. The official opening of the city Christmas Tree, place on Dumskaya Square, took place on December 19th — Saint Nicholas Day. Nearby, there is a setup for a fair with fairytale characters and the main symbol of the upcoming Chinese year — the red rooster. The main New Year festivities will take place here, including a big holiday concert with contests and surprises. Hidden away in the middle of Savranskiy forest, in the village of Osechki, there is a Residence of Saint Nick. Guests are invited into the dining hall, and then take part in various amusements, visit a Christmas fair, and receive presents. The Residence carries out charity events for children, so that each child can feel the joy of the holiday and get their very own present.
Today we can’t imagine Christmas and New Year celebrations without a beautifully decorated tree. But this was not always the case. During these winter days, one tries to picture how the residents of the city celebrated the holidays in the time of its foundation 200 years ago. Historically, Odessa was well known for being the first in the Russian Empire, and even in the world, to adopt new trends. In the beginning of the 19th century, the first Christmas tree was put up in Odessa and not in the capital Saint-Petersburg, even though in those days conifers did not grow on the shores of the Southern Palmira and Christmas was celebrated without a decorated tree. Alexander de Ribas — a descendant of the city founder Jose de Ribas — tells the story of the first Christmas tree in his book “Old Odessa.” That green beauty was sent by Count Pototskiy from his Sofievskiy Park in Uman as a gift to Countess Naryshkina, a favorite of Tsar Alexander I who was visiting Odessa with her 6 year old daughter. In her honor, the Duke of Richelieu — the Mayor and Governor-General of Odessa — gave a Christmas ball in the Pototsky Palace where she was staying. The fluff tall fir tree was placed in the grand hall. It was sparkling with myriad lights from wax candles and was decorated with glass ornaments and presents. All the guests were fascinated by the exotic tree and marveled at its grandeur, while a snowstorm raged and tossed snowflakes about in the Christmas night outside.
The chief organizer and master of ceremonies at this ball was the young Louis Rochechouart — personal secretary and friend of the Duke of Richelieu. He was a great artist in the arrangement of entertainments. There were many guests. The Pototsky Palace that night was attended by the cream of Odessan aristocracy: Count de Langeron with his wife (a friend of Richelieu who subsequently replaced him as Governor-General), Felix de Ribas (brother of the admiral Jose de Ribas) who served as the Neapolitan Consul General, as well as the British, French and Austrian Consuls, renowned entrepreneurs Sicard and Renault who made a valuable contribution to the development of the city, and many others. All city residents celebrated the winter holidays, cooked holiday dishes, came out for open-air festivities, but Christmas trees appeared in the homes of regular citizens much later.
With the arrival of Duke of Richelieu, the cultural life in Odessa became very lively. Balls and costumed masquerades were given regularly. A large number of people from other cities and towns started coming to the young Odessa for Christmas celebrations. Since those times, Christmas and New Year became the main holidays of the year for Odessites.