The Battle over Christmas in a Systemic Borderland

The Battle over Christmas in a Systemic Borderland

I want to share a small vignette that I think symbolizes the stresses on countries that were once part of the Soviet Bloc but are now unsure if their future will be in seeking a closer alliance with Russia or with the West. In an article I published earlier this year I called such states systemic borderlands—states that are the geopolitical crossroads between two or more normative systems. Others have used terms such as “torn states” (I believe Paul Kennedy used Turkey as an example) to express similar concepts, but I think you get the picture.

This story takes place in Moldova and, no, it is not about Transnistria or the law of secession or anything like that. It is about a Christmas tree. Here’s how Radio Free Europe opened the story:

With Christmas just days away, most Western cities are resplendent with twinkling lights, wreaths, and lavishly adorned Christmas trees.

[Moldova’s capital] Chisinau, by contrast, conspicuously lacks a tree. In its place: a bitter political feud that is spoiling many a Moldovan’s holiday spirit.

The dispute began earlier this month when Moldova’s Communist president, Vladimir Voronin, declared that the traditional holiday tree would appear on Chisinau’s main square only on December 30 — days after Western Christmas.

The mayor of Chisinau defied the President’s order and had the Christmas tree erected in the main square. Police removed it overnight and blocked the site. The police chief also said he would refuse further orders from the mayor to put the tree back up. What is this all about? RFE continues:

Like Russia, Moldova officially celebrates Christmas on January 7, according to the old Julian calendar. But growing numbers of Moldovans now prefer to observe Christmas on December 25, particularly in the capital, where the tree’s removal has upset many…

Nearly all Moldovans are Orthodox Christians. Some are loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church, which follows the Julian calendar. Others, however, are members of the Romanian Orthodox Church, which celebrates Christmas according to the new Gregorian calendar, on December 25.

Voronin’s decision to postpone the tree’s debut until the final days of the year belies not only his pro-Russian stance but his communist loyalties as well. In the Soviet era, New Year’s was the main winter holiday, and fir trees traditionally went up on or around New Year’s Eve.

This is life in a systemic borderland: where seemingly innocuous issues—when are we putting up the Christmas decorations?—become leitmotifs in a political struggle. Part of the argument is domestic. Igor Botzan, a Moldovan political analyst, put it this way:

“It would be very funny if it weren’t so sad,” says Botzan. “In this country, no initiative, not even holidays, can be carried out without the president’s approval. This dispute has to be viewed within the context of the ongoing conflict between the central authorities and the opposition.”

But part of the struggle is geopolitical. Will Moldova be primarily in the Russian normative sphere, following the traditions of the Julian calendar or will it be in the Western sphere, following the Gregorian? If each side is threatened by the practices of the other then it is unlikely that Moldova can remain in both—what starts as a borderland or a crossroads can all too easily become a torn state.

Norms matter. How we celebrate. How we order our days. The laws we pass. I dislike the catchphrase “it’s all political,” but in systemic borderlands, sometimes it seems that way.

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