I had, in many ways, an enchanted childhood, largely because of my mother's fierce fight againt introducing me to reality. I was a Jewish kid completely unaware of anti-semitism; the child of vaguely dissident samizdat readers who happily became a young pioneer because it seemed nice. I wasn't exactly an idiot, but I sure got good at suspending disbelief. Everyone seemed happier that way.
In Russia, no one really celebrated Christmas. Instead, there was a massive to-do on New Year's Eve, with families plodding through giant snowbanks on buses and subways and metros and trains to be together, put on skits, drink chamagne, and eat whatever could be cobbled together from long lines at supermarkets and careful year-long hoarding. And there was no Santa -- that smacked too much of religion in the USSR in the eighties. Instead, there was good old Grandfather Frost, accompanied by a Snow Maiden with a long blond braid and wearing a tradiitional Russian outfit. I could take or leave Grandfather Frost, but I loved the Snow Maiden.
Instead of settling down in comfy chairs at the mall, Santa style, Russian Frosts were a hardier sort. Usually, they were neighborhood guys looking to make a quick ruble, accompanied by a female friend willing to share in the bounty. They would wander from floor to floor in the giant apartment blocks, knocking on doors, seeing if anyone was interested. for the first couple of years of my life, my parents let them in, paid them something, gave Frost a shot of something to take the chill off, and tried to get me to pose for pictures. I was terrified, and hid. One year, my father dressed up in the costume, and my terror intensified, if family legend is to be believed. After all, these were strangers in bizarrely dyed fur coats, smelling of cigarettes and booze, tromping into our tiny kitchen in heavy black boots.
So my parents gave up, and had Frost "mail" me gifts from then on. And it worked for a while. It's not that I believed, exactly -- it's that I was too busy gorging on pate and home made lox and practicing my holiday skits to really care who the packages really came from. If my parents wanted them to have come from Grandfather Frost, who was I to argue?
It all came to an end in a rather abrupt and spectacular fashion when I was seven. I had opened my "parcel" from Frost, found the requested doll with long hair and eyes that opened and closed, and thought of him no more. My best friend at the time and I did our skit to the thunderous applause of tipsy adults about 4 times, and then retired to the kitchen to rebuild our strength with some canapes that were being saved for dessert.
I don't know what possessed us to open the window to the freezing cold. We lived on the third floor, in the middle of a long apartmen block, and our windows overlooked the back of the building, and, beyond a snow-covered lawn, an empty street. It was silent and beautiful outside as we looked out at the snow, the frosted trees, and our fat downstairs neighbour, half-dressed in a Grandfather Frost costume, listing significantly starboard due to all the shots he had been given to "warm him up" in every hospitable apartment he visited. He was attempting to pee on our stoop, and failing in a spectacular fashion. Having made a mess of his costume and the nearby snowbank, he took off weaving through the drifts, singing a popular song about a million scarlet roses, where he substituted all the words he forgot with cursewords I had rarely heard before.
It was by far the most spectacular thing that had happened that year. In fact, it is one of my best memories ever. It was not the shattering of illusion, but a delightfully bawdy peek ito a grown-up words that we had been carefully shielded from. My next few peeks would not be so uproarious, or harmless, or picturesque. But that one would make up for a lot of stuff to come. Grandfather Frosts' farewell gift to a newly minted unbeliever...