The Imperial Family’s last Christmas in 1917

This article was written by Kate Baklitskaya, and published in the 7th January 2014 edition of The Siberian Times. I have taken the liberty of making some corrections and adjustments to her text – PG

NOTE: The Russian Orthodox Church observes Christmas Day on 7th January according to the Old Style Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West.

During the winter of 1917-18 Emperor Nicholas II and his family were being held under house arrest in Tobolsk, in western Siberia, before being moved in the spring of 1918 to Yekaterinburg where they were murdered in July 1918. Their last Christmas – since they used the Julian calendar, took place on what most of the world now knows as 6 and 7 January 1918, but for them it was 24 and 25 December 1917 – was still full of joy and hopes for a better future, even though 1917 was the year when the Romanovs were toppled.

In exile the Emperor and his family continued to live as normal life as their situation would allow them, although they were forbidden to go into town or attend church, they were only allowed to leave the house to walk and play in the yard.

The Tsar was not afraid of simple manual work, spending his time chopping wood with his son Alexey following his example. The former Tsesarevich, then 13, took care of the poultry. 

The children continued their studies and the Emperor taught them a course of Russian history. Their mother Alexandra taught German to the children, perhaps surprisingly since World War One was still underway. As Christmas approached, the former Tsesarevich and his four sisters – the Grand Duchesses – were given a break. 

This is how Grand Duchess Olga described this period: ‘Everything is peaceful and quiet, thank God. We are all healthy and not losing hope. Today my sisters’ and brother’s vacation begun.  There is still not a lot of snow, the frost reaches -20C, and the sun shines almost all the time, it rises and sets bright and beautiful. …It’s so nice to go for walks. Mama works all day or draws and paints, keeps herself busy all the time and the time flies quickly.’

Their hope at the time was to be allowed to go into exile abroad to Britain, but this plan was vetoed in London amid fears their presence would stoke revolutionary sentiments. Ekaterina Schneider, their Russian language teacher, described Christmas Eve in her letters: ‘In the evening today we will go for overnight prayer… After we came home and had breakfast. There I was decorating a Christmas tree with candles – there were no other decorations, so tonight a small Christmas tree will be lit’. 

‘The trees here have a completely different smell, the tree smells of oranges …  Now it’s 4pm, I’ll go into the yard to help to make a snow mountain – tonight there was a lot of snow . It’s -7C degrees. By local standards it’s hot’.

The Empress started preparations for Christmas well in advance. Despite their difficult financial situation she still managed to prepare presents for all the family members, friends and retainers. Most of these presents were handmade.

Alexandra described their Siberian Christmas in her diary: ‘December 24. Sunday. Tobolsk. Christmas Eve. Preparing gifts. Breakfast downstairs. Decorated Christmas tree, laid out the gifts. Tea. Then I went to the guards from the 4th Infantry Regiment, all together 20 people’.

‘I brought them a small Christmas tree and some food, and a Bible each with a bookmark that I hand painted. Sat there with them. 7.30 pm. Had  dinner downstairs with everyone. 9pm Christmas celebration for our servants – for all our people.

‘9.30 pm. Evening service at the church: a large choir sang. The soldiers came as well.’

The Empress did her best to support her family in the difficult times and bring the Christmas spirit into the family celebration. Perhaps thanks to her effort Romanov family enjoyed their last Christmas.

In a letter to her lady in waiting Sophia Karlovna Buxhoeveden, the Empress wrote that love, hope and patience were her guides through these difficult times.

‘I gently kiss you and wish you all the best. May God send you health and peace of mind, which is the greatest gift. We should pray to God for patience, because it is so important for us in this world of suffering (and the greatest madness), for comfort, strength and happiness.

‘Perhaps the word ‘joyful Christmas’ sounds like a joke now, but after all this joy of the birth of our Lord. …. He will manifest His mercy when the time comes, and before that we have to wait patiently. We cannot change what is happening – we can only believe, believe and pray and never lose love for Him.’

© The Siberian Times. 6 January 2023