Christmas under Communism

I lived for two years in Eastern Europe, during and shortly after the end of the Communist era. In those two years, my wife and I celebrated a traditional Christmas, complete with festive decorations, Christmas cards, modestly wrapped gifts, a holiday meal, and a two-foot plastic Christmas tree that we came upon at the local market. Though our holiday was quite simple, Christmas was nonetheless celebrated joyfully in our hearts. It was accompanied by the knowledge that this day is indeed special because it commemorates the origin of a redemptive faith in human potential. The communist state could not keep us or others among the ex-pat and local population from reciting the biblical story of the birth of Christ.

What it could do was prohibit all public manifestations of the profound religious tradition that had once dominated the hearts and minds of most Eastern Europeans.

I recall trudging through the snow to classes scheduled for Christmas Day -- trudging for two miles each way to avoid riding the absurdly overcrowded buses reeking of unwashed humanity. It seemed odd to find faculty conducting classes as usual and students milling about the university cafeteria, and not a word to suggest that the day was different from any other. There were no greetings of "Merry Christmas," no exchanges of cards or presents, no looks of anticipation or wonder.

What was celebrated instead was the secular holiday of New Year. Special market tables had been set up offering a meager selection of cheaply printed New Year's cards and miserable trinkets for the children: wooden pop guns, cheap plastic dolls, and an especially dubious treat -- a rubber chicken already plucked of its feathers. With classes and work suspended for the holiday, families gathered for New Year's meals and fellowship. Meanwhile, state television broadcast the same old promises: the advent of another remarkable year of sham efficiencies and faked production quotas.

Despite the pretense of religious toleration that marked the last decades of Communism, no one seemed to care any longer. The communist state, it seemed, had succeeded in eradicating Christmas as a public holiday. As my vintage Rough Guide, dedicated to "the continuation of a free, nonaligned and Socialist Yugoslavia" puts it, religious faiths have "experienced a waning of worship" since the rise of Communism (The Rough Guide to Yugoslavia, London 1985: p. 51). At the time that I lived in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, religious practice was not just waning: it seemed confined to a diminishing population of frail old women (though it now appears to have made a remarkable comeback, flourishing as believers are no longer discouraged from practicing their faith by neighborhood informants and government spies).

Christianity can survive long periods of oppression, but in the meantime, individual lives can be terribly harmed. In Eastern Europe, hundreds of millions of human beings suffered though a grinding half-century of Communist rule. Lacking the wisdom and inspiration of traditional faith, generations passed through life like hollow men passing from Communist youth leagues to Communist workers' associations to communist pensioner schemes.

Yet one of the inescapable paradoxes of Communism is the fact that the godless state, which professes the virtue of materialism, can then so completely fail to provide even the material necessities that most in the West take for granted. Although there were rubber chickens and wooden pop guns in the market, there was a general absence of everything else. By the time Christmas rolled around, there was little variety of food, and milk had disappeared from the stores. Fresh fruit, including oranges and bananas, vanished entirely, as did all fresh vegetables, except for an aging stock of potatoes, carrots, and turnips. Other than some suspiciously outdated and moldy-looking sausages, meat was in short supply. What there was, along with the potatoes, carrots, turnips, and sausages, was the bland production of the state canneries: jams, jellies, canned vegetables and fruits, potted meat and chicken, and an adequate quantity of bread to be washed down with ample supplies of locally produced plum brandy, beer, and wine.

It might seem that the state had at least provided an adequate caloric intake, but every day I saw people of all ages, from young women with infants cradled in one arm to old men in ragged suits, fumbling through garbage bins for bread crusts and bones.

Christmas was also accompanied by the unrelieved cold. The Communist state had guaranteed heating and electricity for all, just as it had guaranteed universal free medical care, but blackouts were frequent and long, and water shortages predictable: two days off, one day on. Every night, the heat was turned off at nine o'clock. I slept in a cold room under a mountain of blankets, sometimes lying awake as my breath rose like smoke in the moonlight. Then I got very sick, but I refused to be taken to the hospital for fear of being made sicker.

Each morning, a shabbily dressed population reemerged on the streets, crouching against the cold, beaten down by hardship, hunger, untreated disease, and the extinction of all human dreams. Walking the streets of a Communist city in late December, with the unshoveled snow packed down into a treacherous sheet of ice, shivering because no matter where one went, inside or out, one would still be cold -- this was the reality of a Communist Christmas.

But it was not just the bleak physical conditions that ground people down and caused them to die in their forties and fifties. For generations under Communist rule, life passed with nothing more wondrous or resplendent than the material facts of work, consumption, and reproduction. During the Communist era, most people in Eastern Europe grew up as confirmed atheists, smug in the certainty that nothing really mattered except getting along in life and securing as much of society's meager production of goods and services as possible. From this there was no reprieve except cheap alcohol and foul, locally produced cigarettes. For decades, the dismal sight of middle-aged men slumped over smoky barroom tables was ubiquitous in Belgrade and Sofia.

That hopeless future seemed to await many of my bright and curious students. Even at a young age, I felt, they were already cynical and defeated. This, of course, was not their fault, for they had been instilled with the firm belief that the noise spewing from a new boom box or television set was more precious than the words relating the birth of Christ and all of the other elements of their traditional faith. They seemed to accept this materialist view with little hesitation or questioning. They even considered themselves lucky since they were more up to date -- more cosmopolitan than their ancestors, who had huddled in cold churches in the expectations of the mysterious recitation of a miracle.

I will never forget the awful reality of Communism or believe that it can ever be anything other than the hell it was. The facts of the last century should be enough to put an end to that vicious ideology forever, but now I find that many in our own government support something similar. Barack Obama has lost no time at pointing the country toward socialism during his first year in office. Given the chance, he will soon transform our dear country into a socialist state in which liberty will be restricted and private property much reduced. Unless he is stopped in the elections of 2010 and 2012, Obama, with the support of a compliant Congress, will extend control and regulation to every part of our lives, from prenatal care to the seizure of half of our estates  -- and often more than half -- after death. With the assistance of a subservient media, he will create a propaganda machine designed to control the outcome of future elections.

I have tried to describe my experience of communism, but soon it may not be necessary to journey back in time and outside our borders to know what a Communist Christmas is like. If the electorate does not rid Washington of the leftist politicians now controlling our affairs, we will be celebrating a Communist Christmas here in the United States.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published nine books and over a hundred articles on American culture and politics in national journals and newspapers.
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