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Six Years at the Russian Court - by Margaret Eager

CHAPTER 11

A RUSSIAN CHRISTMAS

WE generally spent Christmas at Tsarskoe Selo. It is less observed than Easter in general, but in the palace it is a great festival. There were no fewer than eight Christmas trees in various parts of the palace. The Empress dressed them all herself, and personally chose the presents for each member of her household, and for each officer, to the number of about five hundred. A tree was arrayed for the Cossacks in the riding-school. The children and I had a tree for ourselves. It was fixed into a musical-box which played the German Christmas hymn, and turned round and round. It was indeed a glittering object. All the presents were laid out on white covered tables, and the tree stood for several days an object of intense interest and admiration to the children. They were very sad when it was dismantled just before we went to St. Petersburg, but they were consoled by being allowed to help, and to divide the toys between the members of their own household.

We went to St. Petersburg on the last day of the old year (Russian counting). On New Year's Day there was a great ceremony in the palace cathedral. The Emperor and Empress and the Dowager Empress went to church in state, accompanied by their own courts and all the grand ducal courts, all wearing full court dress. We saw the Empress when she was dressed; very magnificent she looked in her court dress of white satin with its long train of brocade, seven chains of diamonds round her neck, a girdle of the same sparkling gems round her waist, the ends falling to the hem of her dress. On her head she wore the kokoshnik, the crescent-shaped head-dress, in white brocade, lavishly decorated with large single stone diamonds. A rich lace veil depended from it and hung at the back almost to her knees.

The little girlies were delighted to see her so gorgeously attired; they circled round her in speechless admiration for some time, and suddenly the Grand Duchess Olga clapped her hands, and exclaimed fervently, "Oh! Mama, you are just like a lovely Christmas tree!" After divine service was finished there was a drawing-room, at which all the debutantes were presented.

The Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana Nicholaivna were fond of listening to stories. On one occasion Tatiana told Olga a story, the end of which was as follows: "So my little girl and my niece went into the wood and a big wolf ate my little girl, so she went to heaven." Olga was horrified at such theology. "Oh no!" she cried; "she could not have gone to heaven, because the wolf ate her, and God does not allow wolves to go to heaven. She is walking about the wood inside the wolf." The other child calmly accepted this wonderful correction. I found I had to be very careful in telling them stories. On one occasion I told Olga the story of Joseph and his brethren. She was deeply interested, and exclaimed, "What a shame!" I said, "Yes; it was indeed a terrible shame for them to be so jealous and so cruel to their young brother." She exclaimed, "I mean it was a shame of the father. Joseph was not the eldest, and the beautiful coat should have been given to the eldest son; the other brothers knew that, and perhaps that was why they put him in the pit." Explanations were useless; all her sympathies were given to Reuben. She was angry with King David because he killed Goliath, and said, "David was much younger and smaller, and poor Goliath never expected him to throw stones at him." "Jack the Giant Killer" gave her no pleasure; it upset her idea that might was right. Once there was a cinematograph exhibition for the children and some friends. One picture showed two little girls playing in a garden, each with a table before her covered with toys. Suddenly the bigger girl snatched a toy from the little one who, however, held on to it and refused to give it up. Foiled in her attempts, the elder seized a spoon and pounded the little one with it, who quickly relinquished the toy and began to cry. Tatiana wept to see the poor little one so ill-treated, but Olga was very quiet. After the exhibition was over she said, "I can't think that we saw the whole of that picture." I said I hoped the end of it was that the naughty big sister was well punished, adding that I thought we had seen quite enough as I had no wish to see anything more of such a naughty girl. Olga then said, "I am sure that the lamb belonged at first to the big sister, and she was kind and lent it to her sister; then she wanted it back, and the little sister would not give it up, so she had to beat her."

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