Orthodox America

A Memorable Eve - A true story from Holy Russia  

What a cold, penetrating wind!  The snow is spread like a white shroud, while new snow is falling, falling in thick flakes.  By the light of the electric lanterns it seems that the air is full of silver dust!  It is as though the entire city is being tidied up expressly for the feast-it’s so snow-white clean and harmonizes so well with the festive mood. The rooms are similarly festive: vigil lamps burn before all the icons, clean curtains hang at the windows, the long table is covered with a snow-white cloth and laden with food. There’s everything imaginable:  lenten borscht with mushrooms, all kinds of fish: fried, steamed, marinated, stuffed; and principally-the pies. Our Ukrainian cook bakes all kinds: with peas, rice, mushrooms, fish, cabbage, noodles, beans.  And then there’s the kutia with honey, poppy seed “milk”, sweet pie.  Only the generous Ukraine can think up so many varied lenten appetizers, in spite of there having been a hard year.  It has experienced difficult times: the German occupation; the front which beat back the Germans; the Bolsheviks and, glory to God, once again the volunteer army. But how much longer will they be able to hold out! 

This eve, however, the whole family is together, gathered under the paternal roof.   One wants to remember old times and celebrate properly, without dwelling on the future.  Perhaps it is the last time that the family will spend the holidays in such warmth and coziness. 

Even now the entire picture stands clearly before my eyes: here is father-hale and hearty, always full of life, cheerful, indulgent; here is mother-so quiet, thin, her heart forever aching over someone, with compassion for all.  How many bitter tears she has dried; how many she has helped, saved from ruin, fed, clothed. And never a word about this to anyone.  She alone, and those unfortunate ones knew about this.  Three sisters-all blond, joyful and still carefree. While I, the eldest at twenty, was already married, and my husband, an officer in the Volunteer Army which was at that time in our city, was home on leave for the feast.  Everyone had gathered in the dining room, everyone: our family and all the servants.  On the eve of Nativity everyone was equal; together everyone glorified the Incarnate Christ, and together everyone sat down at the large festive table. Such was the custom in grandfather’s time, and so it remained for all his nineteen children. Standing around the table, we noticed that there were thirteen of us.  On Christmas Eve it wasn’t right for there to be thirteen people at the table. Mama sent me, the eldest daughter, to invite to dinner the first person whom I should meet on the street. “On this Holy Night the Lord will send precisely the right person!” It was an old custom in Little Russia: to invite someone to dinner, a poor man, and to receive him with honor as the Lord’s emissary. 

Without losing a moment, I ran downstairs, opened the front door and, together with a cloud of warm air, flew onto the veranda. 

I shall never forget the sight which met my eyes: the figure of an officer in a threadbare greatcoat with raised collar, its short sleeves exposing thin, blue hands.  Misery.  He was so taken aback by my invitation to dine with us that he lost his speech. I thought I saw tears glisten in his unnaturally large eyes. His sorrowful smile was touching: “But I’m not properly dressed, not shaven; after being ill I lost touch with...” He waved his hand hopelessly...

Our family greeted warmly the lonely, still unwell stranger.  He not only dined with us, but stayed for some time and shared his experiences; as he did, it seemed that the deep creases on his not yet old face gradually softened.

He came the next day, and the next, and so until his departure, spending whole days with us, finding with everyone something to talk about.  Before his departure, sitting at evening tea, he told us of the miracle which had occurred on the eve of Nativity, when he found himself in a strange city, torn from family and friends. He was feeling miserable and went to wander around the city, struggling with despair, with a tormenting melancholy, only repeating insistently, “Lord, Lord!” “I was walking along a street, tired, sick, half-starved. My family was in the north, far away; I don’t even know if they are still alive.  I was severely wounded and then suffered a bout with typhus. I didn’t know if I could rejoin my regiment. I was alone with my melancholy, with my dismal thoughts and uncertain future.  Who was I fighting for? Where were those people for whom I was sacrificing my life, defending their peace, their safety?

“Looking at the illumined windows in the houses around me, I imagined the warmth and coziness inside, and this only increased the heaviness in my soul; my thoughts became still more bitter.  I felt as though I were beginning to hate everyone who was happy, carefree, who could be joyful-when we were going off to die!  And then, a miracle!  The very minute my hand involuntarily felt for the revolver in my pocket, when my despair had become unbear-able, at that very moment-the door flew open and it was as if a white cloud burst out and in it, like a bright butterfly-joy itself and hope, a girl with a kind, friendly voice, as though sent from above to restrain me from a fatal move.  With difficulty I held back the tears which rose like a great knot in my throat. I understood that this was God’s mercy, that God Himself had led me here!  “How fervently, how fervently I prayed, returning after dinner that night with a bright feeling which warmed my heart and restored a love for life and people, restored faith that there is a reason for battling against evil, for defending what is holy, what has remained from our ancestors, the testament of love!”

Where are you, Captain K.?  Are you still alive?  Do you remember that Nativity Eve years ago in a small city of southern Russia?

Zinaida Slesarevskaya

(Translated from Pravoslavnaya Zhizn, Jordanville, NY, 1959.)