Christmas With The Jermihovs

December 25 is a not a big day for Peter Jermihov, but Christmas is.

And Christmas ranks somewhere behind whatever day Easter falls on but only slightly ahead of July 4.

Jermihov (Yer-mee-hoff') moved to Texas with his family in August to become director of choral activities at Sam Houston State University. He is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, which celebrates Christmas Jan. 7.

People like Peter Jermihov remind us what some have sacrificed to be able to be here, and how much alike we all are under the bright light that appears this time of the year in the eastern sky.

While they come on slightly different dates, Hanukkah, the Christmas of Western Christianity, the Christmas of Russian Orthodoxy, or Kwanzaa, are all characterized by a celebration of values, special food and song, gifts, and an emphasis on family and friends.

"Call me Peter," he says. Peter is a popular name in Russia--as in "Peter the Great" and "Peter and the Wolf."

Nicholas is also a popular Russian name. Peter's four-year-old son is named after the St. Nicholas that Westerners so often connect with Christmas because the feast of St. Nicholas is in December and if you say the saint's name Southern it comes out "Sanny Claws."

His two-year-old daughter is Anastasia--his wife, Irina.

Peter may be Russian Orthodox but he is not Russian.

His family was, having lived in a house his father built in a village near the border of Russia and Estonia. His father was a master carpenter, with a workshop that employed 12 men.

Before his father and mother met she was a student in Leningrad when the Germans approached in 1941. She was sent out to dig the trenches that slowed the invaders as they laid siege to the city until 1943.

Peter's mother and father met after both were captured and sent to German prison camps. They were liberated by the Allies--"liberation by the Russians didn't necessarily mean liberation," says Peter.

They lived in Germany for awhile and came to the United States in 1949. Peter's father knew he could not go home.

"My people fled," says Peter. "My father's relatives were shot. The word 'communist' to my father was not a good word."

They were independent people, he says. Communism at first had not affected their village greatly, but after the war Stalin began to count his friends and destroy his enemies--to wipe out anyone who opposed him or who did not enthusiastically support the Party.

The spiritualism of the Russian Orthodox Church clashed with the materialism of the Communist government. Group religious instruction and training for the priesthood were not allowed. Many churches closed.

With Stalin it was "comply or else," says Peter. "If you didn't, you became an enemy of the people."

So his parents came to the United States--to Chicago. Two people with two suitcases and two children--Peter's twin brother and sister. Peter was born on July 4, 1954--the first American citizen in his family.

Peter and his family left Sunday for the trip to Chicago to spend their Christmas with his mother. His father died in 1992.

Their observance will be in the old style, like he remembers from his first Christmases as an altar boy in the Holy Virgin Protector Cathedral.

Then his Christmas season started with Advent, a time of sacrifice before Christmas, and ended with no eating on Christmas Eve until the first bright star was seen in the east.

Then came the Vigil Service--with the congregation standing for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, benches around the sides but only for those too old to stand.

"The service started with no lights, just candles, and reading of psalms, and finally the absolutely glorious hymn, 'God Is With Us,'," he remembers, "announcing the coming of the Savior."

And what an atmosphere for a future choir master.

"My life in music began with singing and the Russians are a singing people," he says. "Easily 90 percent of the Russian Orthodox services are a capella singing--without instruments."

Trained in piano from the age of six, he conducted his church choir for the first time when he was 12.

After the Christmas Eve service the family went home and exchanged presents. There was a tree, decorated like an American tree. Being Russian Orthodox had its advantages when it came to the tree and presents.

Peter's dad was an old style wheeler-dealer from the old country. He waited until Dec. 26 to buy the tree and waited for the after-Christmas sales to buy the presents. The kids were mortified that someone might notice.

"He'd ask the man 'how much for the tree?'" says Peter. "The man would say '$15'. My father would say, 'I'll give you $2.' He got some great deals."

On Christmas Day it was back to church for the Liturgy. Then visiting friends, going from house to house, singing carols.

After his university training Peter studied in Russian from 1985-'87 under the great master teacher Ilya Musin, conducting some of Russia's finest choral and orchestral groups. It was during the administration of Gorbachev, the beginning of the end of the Communist regimes.

"There was a sense of the ice beginning to move," he says, "and an element of resurgence of religious action."

He was in Leningrad, now known by its old name of St. Petersburg, north of Moscow but warmed somewhat by the Gulf of Finland. It was more like New Jersey or New York, he says, not like America's idea of Russia--"vodka, the Big Bear, Siberia, mounds of snow and ice."

"That's all nonsense," Peter says. "It's a 2,000-year-old culture."

Those two Christmases in Russia were ones he will remember forever.

Material things were scarce. Peter had diplomatic privileges, so he could buy food that others could not--like a turkey from Finland, to share with his friends.

"We spent hours together," he says. "Reading poetry, talking about life, making lifelong friendships. That was a real gift."

He met Irina Riazonova, a choral conducting student from Siberia. In 1987 they were married and left the crumbling Soviet Union. She, too, is a talented choral conductor, having completed her studies at the Leningrad Conservatory and now near completion on her doctorate at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Peter has spent December holiday season in Oregon and California. He and Irina spent Christmas in Taiwan, where there was no Russian Orthodox church and they went instead to a Catholic service.

Russian Orthodox and Catholic beliefs and even services are similar, another example of differences that are more apparent than real.

The difference over when Christmas is celebrated is another. Members of the Russian Orthodox faith believe, as Western Christians do, that Jesus Christ was born on Dec. 25. They just use a different calendar, which disagrees on when that is by 13 days.

In his first semester at Sam Houston State, Peter has conducted the Huntsville Community Choral Society as well the University's Chorale and Symphonic Chorus. He directs the University choral program, which includes four choirs, and this spring plans to organize a university choir of students who are not music majors.

He says the University's choral music program is one of the top three in Texas.

And while Russia has a great tradition of music, art, and dance, Huntsville is lucky to have the cultural resources that it enjoys, he says. In Russia the arts are concentrated primarily in the larger cities.

Like Chicago.

But that is not the reason that Peter and his family will be there celebrating Christmas, days after most Texans have celebrated theirs and with stores here breaking out chocolate hearts and Valentine's Day cards.

"We like it here," he says.


Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak

Dec. 24, 1996