For many, Christmas is a time of merry making and gift giving, of bonding with friends and family and of spending time in the warm glow of love.
And, of course, gifts are the most awaited part of the beloved holiday.
It is a tradition which, according to legends, has continued since the birth of Christ, when He was offered the first gifts that would later become an important aspect of the celebration of his birth. And like gifts, Christmas stories are also an integral part of the occasion. Every region, area, country has its own favorite Christmas story that elders and children alike love recounting during this time of the year.
In Russia, the tradition of giving gifts during Christmas, especially to children, had its origin in a very poignant legend, the Legend of Baboushka.
The official Russian Christmas and New Year holidays last from 31 December to 10 January. People go to the midnight services, and special Christmas food includes cakes, pies, and meat dumplings. Apparently, the story of Baboushka was very popular in the country already before the revolution of 1917. However, curious fact, most people in Russia have never heard this tale (It seems that it was probably created by an American poet and writer called Edith Matilda Thomas in 1907).
According to a first version of the legend, Baboushka was an old and lonely woman who is considered to have started the tradition of giving gifts to children. Baboushka, which means “grandmother” or “old woman” in Russian, lived in a big house, safe and warm. However, she led a very lonely life with no family, friends or neighbors. Only the sound of travelers passing in their carts and the animals grazing nearby could break the monotony of her existence, these being her only solace. In her life, she would provide food to the animals and birds and offer a resting place to weary travelers. When winter came, (and winter in Russia is long and dreary), these little comforts would also fade away. Even the birds, that she would leave crumbs for, would desert her for warmer climes, leaving the old woman sad and lonely, wishing for company. It was on one such winter night, when she was trying to sleep, that she heard a noise steadily growing louder, voices and grunts, despite she knew there were no humans or animals for miles around, what with the entire earth being blanketed in snow. Before long, she heard a loud pounding at her door and she rushed to open it, thinking that it must be a cold and famished traveler, only to find three large horses with three noblemen dressed in some of the finest and richest clothes that she had ever seen.
They invited her to travel with them, to Bethlehem, where they were bound, they said, to find and welcome the child who would be the king of Jews and lead mankind to salvation.
Since, it was night and the winter harsh, the old woman asked the strangers to alight and spend the night her house so that they all can leave in the morning but they declined, saying that they do not wanted to get delayed, and set off. Later that night, she thought of the three men and the strange tidings they bore about the child who would be the king. She felt sad at rebuffing their invitation and so, then and there, she decided to meet the Child.
Thus, she gathered some trinkets to gift him and set out in the cold dark night. However, despite she travelled far and wide she could find neither the child king nor the travelers.
Legend has it that the old woman is looking for him to this day and that whenever she meets a child she give him/her with trinkets and continues on her search.
It is believed that, from her, originates the custom of giving gifts to children on Christmas, to continue the kind work of Baboushka.
In another similar and more detailed version of the same story, a women called Babushka used to live in a small peasant town in Russia. She always worked hard cleaning and keeping her house tidy, the cleanest house in the whole village. In addition, her garden was full of flowers and her cooking was wonderful.
One evening she was busy dusting and cleaning, so busy that she didn’t hear the villagers outside in the square talking about and looking at the new star in sky. She had heard about the star but thought, All this fuss about a star! I don’t even have the time to look because I’m so behind with my work.
So, Babushka missed the star as it shone brightly, high overhead. She also missed the little line of twinkling lights coming down towards the village at dawn. She didn’t hear the sounds of the pipes and drums. Babushka missed the voices and whispers of the villagers wondering whether the lights were an army or a procession of some sort. She missed the sudden quiet of the villagers and even the footsteps coming up the path to her door.
But the one thing that she couldn’t miss was the loud knocking on her front door.
There were three kings at her door with one of their servants.
“My masters need a place to rest,” said the servant, “and yours is the best house in the village.”
“You want to stay here?” asked Babushka.
“Yes”, replied the servant. “It would only be until night falls and the star appears again.” Babushka agreed.
As soon as they walked across the threshold, the three kings were delighted with all the food they saw: home-baked bread, pies and cakes, and she serving them and offering the best of her hospitality.
They said that they were following the new star, and the three kings believed that the star would lead them to a new-born king, a King of Earth and Heaven.
“Why don’t you come with us?” asked one of the king,
“You could bring him a gift like we do. I bring gold, and my colleagues bring spices and perfumes.”
As the kings slept, Babushka tidied up as quietly as she could. There was no time for dreaming, all this washing-up and putting away had to be done.
When it was night-time again and the star was in the sky. Babushka said that she came tomorrow, as she must just tidy and find a gift. The kings went away sadly and Babushka ran back into her house, keen to get on with her work. Finally, she went to a small cupboard, opened the door and gazed at all the very dusty toys. They weren’t fit for a baby king. Babushka decided that they would all need to be cleaned, and she polished all of the toys until each one shined.
Later she pulled on her cloak, packed the toys in a basket and ran down the path the kings had taken, as the villages got bigger and became towns.
Babushka never stopped, and everywhere she asked, “Have you seen the kings?”
“Oh yes,” everyone told her, “We saw them, they went that way.”
Babushka never stopped until she set off towards Bethlehem, and it was evening when she arrived. She went into the local inn and asked about the kings.
“Oh yes,” said the landlord, “The kings were here two days ago. They were very excited, but they didn’t even stay the night.”
“And what about a baby?” Babushka cried.
“Yes there was also,” said the landlord. “The kings asked about a baby, too…” When he saw the disappointment in Babushka’s eyes, he stopped.
“If you’d like to see where the baby was,” he said quickly, “He was across the yard there. I couldn’t offer the couple anything better at the time. My inn was really full, so they had to stay in the stable.” Babushka followed him across the yard. He looked kindly at her, and she wondered if he knew where the family had gone.
“They have gone to Egypt, and safety. The kings have returned to their countries, but one of them told me about you. I am sorry, but you are too late,” he told Babushka.
In any case, It is said that Babushka is still looking for Jesus today….