A BRIEF but intense snow storm sweeps across Moscow the evening of Jan. 6, covering the quiet streets with a clean white blanket. Throughout the city, people in their winter coats and high boots walk carefully along the frozen sidewalks. It is Christmas Eve in Russia, celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church on Jan. 7, according to the prerevolutionary Julian calender.
This is the first Christmas since the fall of the Soviet state, after the red flag was hauled down from the Kremlin ramparts.
Revolution Day, Nov. 7, the day to celebrate the Bolshevik seizure of power, is no longer on the official list of holidays in Russia. But Christmas is, by decree, once again a state holiday. The worship of Jesus, not Lenin, now has the imprimatur of the restored Russian state.
The archbishop of Moscow celebrates the Christmas liturgy at one of the most beautiful religious structures in Moscow, the Novodevichi Convent (New Convent of the Maidens).
The fairy tale cluster of churches, towers, and gate houses, surrounded by fortress walls, built in the 16th and 17th centuries and set above a duck pond and park along the Moscow River, is a favorite subject for Moscow painters.
The Christmas Eve service takes place in the Cathedral of Dormition, a rectangular hall which used to serve as the dining hall for the nuns. Icons, sacred paintings, are hung along its windowed walls, illuminated by the thin orange candles lit by devotees. The dimly lit, arched ceiling is covered with frescos of the life of Christ Jesus, leading to a set of three arched entries. Beyond, lies the iconostasis, the traditional Orthodox wall of icons, here richly framed by gold painted decorations and set in
a sky blue background. At the center of the iconostasis stands the Czar's Gate, the doorway into the altar used only by the priest.
For Christmas, fresh cut fir trees and boughs surround the doors and archways. A carpet is rolled to the doorway of the cathedral hall, with a small circular carpet with a Russian eagle on it set at the entry. Priests in white cloaks hold long tapers and swing the kadila which spread vapors of sweet burning incense.
The parishioners stand along the length of the carpet. The stalwarts of Orthodoxy during the Communist era, the babushki (grandmothers), gather in their sturdy wool coats, kerchiefs wrapped tightly around their heads. But no longer are they the primary attendees at churches across Russia.
Here and elsewhere the young have made their appearance in large numbers: a young man in jeans and a jean jacket on one side of the carpet; opposite, a girl in beige slacks with a Mickey Mouse patch on her knee; and a military cadet in his long Army greatcoat.
At 10 p.m., Metropolitan Juvinali of Krytitskoye and Kolomna, as the head of the archdiocese of Moscow is traditionally titled, enters. The deacon sings out, answered by the twin choruses that stand at each corner of the iconostasis.
The chorus, joined by the parishoners, sing the traditional hymn of exhaltation "Velichaniye" ("Glory") as the Gospels in their brass decorative cover are carried from the altar to the center of the church.
The metropolitan reads from the Gospels in Church Slavonic, the bookish language of the church., created by two Greek-Bulgarian monks in the 8th and 9th centuries.
The service, which is performed by a bishop according to Orthodox tradition, is more elaborate than usual. It incorporates hymns and prayers in Greek, the language of the first bishops who brought Christianity to the Kievan Rus state from Constantinople in the 10th century.
The service goes through the night, accompanied constantly by the sometimes lilting, sometimes solemn voices of the chorus.
An old man and woman weave through the growing crowd with collection plates soon piled high with ruble notes bearing the face of Lenin.
Outside, the sky has cleared, bright stars leaping out of the night. The gold onion dome of the Smolensk Cathedral, turned into a museum by the Bolsheviks, nestles gleaming among smaller gray cupolas lightly dusted with snow.