The New-Year Banquet—
Masquerade at the Winter Palace on New-Year’s Day— Affability and Condescension of the Emperor.
Dining upon paper is a tasteless meal, and yet, in the characteristic sketches of a country or city , we cannot well avoid some allusions to eating and drinking, particularly when we wish to venture upon a sketch of a St Petersburgh New Year’s day.
The dinner at Baron C ‘s on this anniversary, presented a proof of the progress which the culinary art has attained under a latitude of sixty northern degrees. Whilst without, the winter birds hoarded up their plumage, in order the better to secure themselves against the cruel frost, within the highly decorated walls and saloons of the baron reigned the genial atmosphere of spring, which numberless flowers strewed around, served to produce; while on the tables were displayed the luscious, fruitful gifts of summer and autumn.
Here the astonished eye was greeted by heaps of juicy cherries and raspberries. Certainly, at this time of the year, a schoolboy’s slender purse would not suffice to procure him even a taste; for the gardener has for a pound of these fruits from 10 to 15 roubles, (8 to 10 shillings.) Young green peas, beans, or carrots, (if the epicure should wish for them,) may be had here in winter at from 20 to 25 roubles, the small measure: and asparagus, cauliflower, and fresh cucumbers are also procurable, though at no small cost. It may easily be imagined, therefore, that a dinner of this description cannot be given to fifty guests without exceeding, perhaps, the expense incurred on similar occasions, by the most celebrated purveyors of other capitals. This circumstance, however, does not seem much to trouble the Russian of high rank; he pays most willingly when he can satisfy his wishes, and if he sees that his guests relish it, is amply rewarded for his outlay.
As regards the drinking portion of the entertainment, the stranger will likewise not fail to experience satisfaction. Rhenish wine is drank least of all—the growths of France, Bourdeaux, and Burgundy, being much more esteemed. The consumption of Champaigne is in Russia so considerable, particularly in the principal cities, that the importation of the genuine wine is insufficient to satisfy the demand. No doubt, therefore, much gooseberry mixture is served in substitution to parties who are not in a condition to distinguish the difference.
It was past eight o’clock when the new year’s banquet was ended, and this was considered the fittest time for proceeding to the masquerade, annually held at this epoch in the Winter Palace and the adjoining Hermitage. In order to describe at large this curious, and, I should think, perfectly unique festival, I should necessarily exceed the space that can be allotted to the purpose in these pages, and shall, therefore,confine myself to a characteristic sketch.
Through long, almost endless corridors, and between rows of richly dressed imperial servants, the company at length arrived at the first saloon ; where, around a grand buffet, to which the plate-chests had abundantly contributed their weighty gold and silver jugs and flagons, mostly bearing the stamp of past centuries, the numerous assembly was paying court to the wine, mead, and confectionary, provided by imperial command.
With difficulty did we elbow our way through the immense crowd, in order to reach the Georgian saloon, where we were greeted by thousands of wax lights, and now began to breathe a little more freely. It will sound almost incredible when I state, that for this masquerade above thirty thousand tickets were distributed!— but that such was the fact I can prove by my own card, which I have still in my possession, and which bears the number twenty-nine thousand, seven hundred and fifty-four, while I have reason to know that this was by no means the highest.
And let it not be thought that admission is only granted to the upper classes; no rank is ever excluded; one meets the senator in his richly brocaded court dress, and immediately afterward stumbles on the very Iswoschtschik who probably had, only an hour or two before, driven us in his sledge through the city. At another moment we pass a princess—and then encounter the wife of a bearded Russian merchant, in her national costume, her ears and neck loaded with jewels and pearls; or we may come in contact with a slim Tscherkessew, in his Asiatic mountain dress; a begowned Bucharenian, or a grave Turk—the latter singularly contrasted by some light-footed Greek, with his expressive and somewhat artful physiognomy; perhaps even a Samojedian may be met with, his stature of some four feet surmounted by a colossal head. Cossacks, Georgians, Armenians—in fact, people of all nations are here mingled together, producing a confusion of national attires which no other masquerade can present in the whole world. And these varieties of costume were no doubt genuine and correct, as we saw no masks, but merely representatives of dozens of eastern and southern countries. It is true, the civilians appear in dominos, which by the time they have made their way back through the crowd present a most tattered appearance.
The court had not as yet appeared; and we were therefore permitted to make a closer inspection of the saloon forming the theatre in the Hermitage, (now fitted up as the banqueting hall) before the noble guests arrived.
All the walls and pillars were covered with glass tubes and plates of ground glass, behind which were thousands of lamps, sparkling and shining through their transparent screen, and reflected in all the colours of the rainbow. Most deceptively imitated by silver tinsel, waterfalls were seen rushing downwards, and fountains spouting upwards. Imitations also of natural landscape made the beholder imagine that, from this fairy-hall, he actually viewed the most delightful specimens of reality. Living thickets of shrubs exhaled aromatic fragrance ; and concealed choirs of music sent forth the most enchanting melody. It was indeed altogether a truly wonderful spectacle, imbodying what we have all read of. in our childhood, in the Arabian tales. Some 10,000 roubles is understood to be the annual sum expended on these decorations; and it must be admitted that, with their help, considerable portions of fascination may be readily conjured up.
Two splendidly decorated tables, on each of which are placed two hundred covers, and which are overlaid with gold and silver, flowers, and rare fruits, stand prepared to entertain, at a late hour, the court guests.
Twelve Moors, richly attired in the Turkish costume, and attached to the Imperial service, await the appearance of their ruler in the crystal hall, and complete the magical effect of this unusual scene.
Making room for other curious guests, we hence returned to the other saloons, where, however, the crowd had meanwhile become still more dense. It was now that a whisper was heard to circulate amongst the moving mass ; all eyes were, in consequence, turned towards the folding doors; and from every saloon rang forth a lively Polonaise.
The crowd, which had previously kept so close together that an apple falling from the ceiling would scarcely have penetrated to the ground, now suddenly pressed still closer, thus contriving to open a passage in the midst . The court train was, it seemed, approaching.
First appeared the Emperor himself, leading his consort by the hand. He was dressed in the rich, gold-embroidered uniform of the Chevalier guards, of which corps the Empress is chief; her Majesty was clad in the national dress of Russia, namely, light blue velvet, trimmed with gold-bordered safaran, with full white sleeves. Upon her head she wore the customary tiara of crimson velvet, called Kakosch, from under which her long platted hair hung down ner back ; her alabaster neck was encircled by large pearls, and the head-dress glittered with brilliants, shaping themselves into the form of a crown. Truly, they were a majestic pair!
Next came the heir-apparent, dressed like his father, in a closely fitting uniform, which suited most happily with his slender, tall figure; he escorted his aunt, the young and lovely wife of the Grand Duke Michael, who himself followed, dressed in the dark-green uniform of a general of artillery, turned up with black velvet and gold lace; he led some lady of the court, whose name I know not. To this couple succeeded the youthful, yet manly figures of the two Dukes, Alexander and Ernest of Wurtemberg, generals in the Russian army, and nearly related to the Emperor.
In the group of noble ladies we missed, on this occasion, one of the most lovely, namely, the Princess Maria, daughter of the senior Duke Alexander of Wurtemberg. She had been a principal ornament of the Imperial court, but had returned just before the festival to Germany, where now, as reigning Dutchess of Saxe-Coburgh Gotha, she has gained the esteem and respect of all who are allowed to approach her.
After the Emperor and family had gone by, followed several noble and distinguished generals, in their state uniforms, and the ladies of the court, in the Russian national costume. Thus the procession walked through the different saloons to the accompaniment of the Polonaise, and amid the voluntary, undissembled acclamations of the assembly. Scarcely indeed could any one withdraw his eyes from so magnificent a spectacle. The Emperor and Empress, in passing onward, turned and addressed in the most gracious manner different members of the crowd; and whoever participated in this compliment, appeared enraptured with the benignant manner of the sovereign.
It was no forced condescension, but bore all the marks of sincere affection towards his subjects—it resembled a father’s conduct to his children—which is, in truth, manifested in all the actions and speeches of the Emperor. An aged Russian, with a long beard, (by his appearance a tradesman of the lower class) whom I met in the crowd, turned towards me, although, of course, totally unknown to him. ” Did you see, sir,” inquired he with joyful face, ” how our father (meaning the Emperor) spoke to me —Ay, and he patted me upon the shoulder too !” added the garrulous old man, chuckling with delight as he reverted to the circumstance, which he related to a second and a third, and at length met with another to whom ” our father” had also spoken, and who could therefore match his story with a counterpart.
All this may be much less interesting on paper; but whoever has witnessed such scenes in reality, and remained an unmoved spectator, must, indeed, bear a cold heart I imagine, that even a revolutionist would become converted, if he were brought into the presence of such a monarch; consequently, whoever has retained in his breast a love and respect for good rulers, to which class Nicholas of Russia does most truly belong, cannot fail to be strengthened in that sentiment.
When the court had entered the banqueting hall, we sought, fatigued by what we had seen and experienced, to gain an outlet through the crowd. From the saloons, where reigned an atmosphere of a very high degree, we stepped into the corridor, in which we encountered a freezing-cold draught of new-year’s air; through which alternation, as has frequently been the case, death himself might have been wafting towards us his icy breath.
Fortunately, however, we soon found our servants waiting with our fur cloaks, and in a few minutes a swiftly-gliding sledge drove us back to the saloon of the kind host, at whose table we had dined; and here some warm punch, together with the animated conversation of a brilliant company, soon banished any disagreeable effects of our excursion.
Source: Foster’s Cabinet Miscellany,
Theodore Foster, 1836