As one age succeeds another, what remains in the mind of posterity? Political triumphs and military victories, scientific discoveries, masterpieces of art and literature. However, the flavour of any era is especially strong in memoirs and diaries. Some of these have preserved for us descriptions of how Christmas was celebrated in the Winter Palace.
In the reign of Catherine II, Christmas was marked at court by Yuletide games. In the Notes (1764-65) left by Semion Poroshin, one of the tutors of the Empress's son, Grand Duke Paul, we find a description of such celebrations in the Empress's apartments. The games took place in the days following Christmas, when the solemn austerity of the Christmas Fast and the night service gave way to the jollity of Yuletide.
Catherine's apartments were on the middle floor of the south-eastern projecting part of the Winter Palace, with windows overlooking Palace Square. "The games were held in the audience room," Poroshin wrote. This was the largest room in the Empress's apartments. It had a floor area of 227 square metres (almost 2,500 square feet) and was magnificently decorated. It was known as the Throne Hall, as the throne was set up there beneath a carved and gilded canopy hung with drapes of crimson velvet embroidered with gold. The hall had a ceiling painting. Its walls were lined with green fabric. There were mirrors, a large fireplace and tables with marble tops. An enormous carpet lay on the patterned parquet floor.
"It began with dancing," Poroshin continues. "Her Majesty and the Grand Duke danced the first minuet." The dancing went on, but Catherine, a passionate card-player, sat down to play ombre with her intimates.
Meanwhile, Grand Duke Paul was playing at spillikins with courtiers. Spillikins (or jackstraws) was one of the most popular games with all classes in the Russian Empire. Today it is almost forgotten. The rules of the old game are simple. The spillikins, thin sticks made of wood or ivory, are spilt onto a table in a heap. Using a special hook a player tries to extract the pieces one at a time without moving any of the others. If he succeeds, he goes again; if not, the turn passes to the next player. Whoever extracts the most pieces wins.
After the dances, they played various folk games: "tied a long ribbon and stood in a circle. The fun began with rukobivka (a few people walked round in a circle and struck the others on the arms)". When that game was over, "they got together in circles of three and chased a fourth... The game went on for an hour or an hour and a half, and then they sang 'plait the hurdle' and danced in the Russian and Polish styles. Her Majesty was pleased to take part in all the games and to dance with Nikita Ivanovich [Panin, the Grand Duke's governor]. His Highness [Paul] was almost dripping with sweat, so earnestly did he involve himself in these pastimes," Poroshin notes.
Then seven gentlemen dressed up as ladies emerged from the Empress's rooms. "They were all wearing blouses, skirts and headdresses. One of them had a kerchief on his head and he was dressed as the wives of boyars do. He played the nurse, and the others - daughters of the house under her supervision. When they came in, they were sat down at a table and served with snacks and punch. Then they fooled about and danced." These mummers included Count Grigory Orlov, the Empress's lover and head of the corps of Cavalier Guards who played a prominent role at court in the 1760s, and Count Alexander Stroganov, a superbly educated grandee who was greatly esteemed by Catherine II.
The celebration of Christmas and the New Year included a succession of balls, masquerades and banquets. From Catherine II's time, it became the custom to have the New Year dinner in a crystal pavilion erected within the auditorium of the court theatre. Following this tradition, in the 19th century too on the first day of the New Year the imperial family dined in a glittering construction of patterned glass.
In the 19th century, following a custom imported from Germany, Christmas trees were set up in the Winter Palace on Christmas Eve for all members of the household. Tables decorated with presents were placed in the apartments. Small novelties were hung on the branches of specially-made metal Christmas trees with copper decorations. In 1848, six "trees with iron branches and copper decorations" were made for Empress Alexandra Fiodorovna and for a lottery.
A colourful description of Christmas Eve in the Winter Palace during the reign of Nicholas I was left by Baroness Fredericks, lady-in-waiting to Empress Alexandra Fiodorovna. "On Christmas Eve, after the night service, the Empress always gave a party for her children and the entire retinue were invited to this family occasion."
The large party for the imperial family and their immediate retinue was usually held in the Empress's apartments and the adjoining Concert Hall and Rotunda. After the night service, in front of the closed doors "all the children, including the imperial children, pressed pushing and shoving each other to be first into the longed-for hall. The Empress went ahead, to look over the tables one more time, and our hearts beat with joy and curious expectation. Suddenly a bell ran, the doors were flung open and we rushed noisily, uproariously into the hall lit by a thousand candles. You can imagine the outpouring of joy, pleasure and gratitude at that moment."
"The Emperor and the imperial children each had their own table with a tree, decorated with various presents, and when the Empress herself had finished handing out presents, we went through into another hall where a big, long table was laid, decorated with various exquisite pieces of porcelain from the Imperial Factory. Here a lottery was held for the entire retinue. The Emperor usually announced the number. The winner went up to Her Majesty and received his gift or prize from her hands." That same day, in the rooms of the imperial children, where there were small trees, "the young Grand Duchesses and Grand Dukes who were not of age gave each other different trinkets".
At Christmas each year an exhibition of pieces from the Imperial Porcelain Factory and the Imperial Glassworks was organized in the palace. The two enterprises produced hundreds of items for this festival - from grand imperial services and immense vases to statuettes, miniature vases and cups.
Times, styles and fashions change. Yet the bright festival of Christmas remains with us. We join in the jollity and give each other gifts and surprises. The Hermitage wishes all its friends a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!