The day was perfectly clear and quiet, as though a bell jar had been clamped over the landscape. The sun, a watery yellow and at its highest no more than a few dozen degrees above the horizon, yeilded no detectable warmth. But its low-angled rays glancing through the crystalline dust of new-fallen snow made the vast drifted field a shimmering carpet that dazzled the eye and the mind.
We stood poised between field and dense forest of fir and birch, perhaps 60 miles west of Moscow, breathing the sharp quiet air, sensing the solitude that winter has brought to the endless East European plain.
We had come in search of a Christmas tree.
The quest had begun a few days before, with a volley of telephone calls to various Soviet departments and agencies in the capital for permission to enter this "green zone" far from the center of the city, an area of Moscow Oblast (region) closed to foreigners and well beyond the 25-mile radius within which we can travel without permission.
After two days of conversations, the bureacracy mysteriously produced permission slips allowing a car bearing a American family plus nanny into the countryside to chop down his own Christmas tree.
The spirit of the season had prevailed. The Russians understood our hopes: They celebrate New Year's with all the intensity and cheer with which Americans treat Christmas, although there is no official religious content to their activities.
There are New Year's trees decorated with light and glass globes, and, beneath the boughs, presents, delivered by Grandfather Frost, who looks, dresses and acts like jolly old you know who, but with exceptions: His sleigh is drawn by a hroika of stunning horses with long flowing manes fron door, "but the chimney is for the devil, exclaimed a Russian grandmother, with a shock when she learned how Santa made his appearance in America).
This year's Grandfather Frost at Detsky Mir, "The children's world" department and toy store across the street from secret police headquarters at Lubyanka Prison, is said by some Russian children to be especially believed. They customarily recite poetry about winter to him, seeking favor that way.
Papers here have recently carried stories about fire dangers from untended New Year's trees and there have been cautinary tales about countrymen who have been fined severely - up to $100 - for profiteering in illegal New Year's trees.
The trees are on sale around the city for a few dollars apiece and while they perhaps are not large or impressive by American standards, they are adequate for the small apartments in which most Muscovites live. The trees bring indoors for a few brief days the scent of clean outdoors so loved by Russians, and they represent good cheer and good times for most.
So when I explained to a teacher at the Russian school my daughter goes to that we had been able to arrange a tree-cutting expedition that would take Nina from class for a full day, the teacher smiled and wished us well.
Once in the countryside, we stopped at a small government office to present our premissions and pay for the tree. There was no other customer. In all, we spent perhaps 15 minutes visiting three different offices and dealing with three of the four women in the last office to get the right initials on the right forms. As we left, I wished them "Novina Godom," Russian for Happy New Year, the universal greeting these days, and they burst into a pleased chorus of return good wishes. They said it was not far to the forest.
We drove another 20 miles through several small villages, past small, old wooden houses set close beside the road. Aged women carried large heavy pails of water home from the community wells and a single jet fighter plane lanced through the bright sky far above.
When we reached our destination, we walked through a copse beneath weight of the snow into a series of birch trees bent double by the arches over the trial. Emerging into the vast field, we crossed it slowly while the children threw snowballs and rolled in the drifts. Then we moved into a forest of large mature pines and stands of young trees. We chose three - one for us and two for friends, carefully paid for in advance. The young forester with us added two more, including a magnificent tree much too tall for our low-ceilinged apartment but which we have sized now to fit.
The children decorated the tree last night, hanging decorations we brought from the United States and stringing lights that we bought here the other day. The apartment is garlanded and a turkey thaws in the kitchen for tomorrow's feast.