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Holiday fun for children -- Moscow style

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The children looked amazed. The Young Pioneer girl tried again to explain, then gave up. She sat down, unzipped one of her winter boots, took it off, put a brightly colored ticket inside it, and put the boot back on.

"Like that," she said. "That's the ticket for your gift after the show. Now you won't lose it."

She smiled, and sent our children with hordes of others up the stairs to the huge red auditorium of the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, which seats 6,000. No parents were allowed: hence the precautions against losing the precious ticket. Parents either waited outside or hoped to find their own children as the flood poured out again later. Independence was the key word.

It was an annual New Year show for children -- one of a variety of entertainments for all children offered here at this holiday time. The Foreign Ministry made tickets available to children of foreign residents, and we sent our children off with bated breath: Would they cope with such a crowd? Would we find them afterward?

No problem. It was all well organized, complete with television personalities, dancers, and costumed fun. When boots were unzipped and tickets regained, every child received a large red plastic star filled with candy from "Ded Maroz" (Father Frost, the Russian version of Santa Claus).

Outside again, children were made to walk in circles while parents came to reclaim them.

Normally at this time of year it is very cold in Moscow and there is plenty of outdoor skating and skiing. But this year, the weather has been unusually mild. Snow has melted and ice has turned to mush. We have had to exchange skates for rubber boots.

In past seasons we have gone to a local duck pond, checked our shoes free in a warm changing house, and skated around a tall, decorated New Year tree ("Yolichka") to a mixture of Western pop music and traditional Russian songs. All ages came out -- from tiny tots dressed like penguins in huge belted fur coats and balancing on double runners -- to war veterans still skating with ease in and around the children.

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