‘King Christmas’ paid for lavish gifts for guests with a spoken order

Written by Daunia-Sen Banerjee, CNN

World literature’s most famous poet once called himself “a mournful creature.” But in A Christmas Carol, the words are even more fitting: “If I be sad in Moscow, why shouldn’t I be sad in Tbilisi?”

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who died 250 years ago in 1864, is better known for his more uplifting novels — stories of golden days and grand visions of a bygone Russia, during the winter of his country’s brief empire. But it was his dark stories that gave him his iconic status: His “Doctor Zhivago” opened the door to characters like Cherry Orser and Yuri Zhivago, the Olympic gymnast and mixed martial arts fighter whose doomed love created a morality tale as universal as any in the English language.

Leo Tolstoy, who died 250 years ago in 1864, is better known for his more uplifting novels. Credit: Paramount Pictures

If the depictions of raucous, cynical life — seen through the skewed and distorted eyes of a broken man — lent his work an emotional power, he undoubtedly had the same effect on a young Paul Czinner.

A chance meeting of characters drawn from Tolstoy’s stories inspired the idea for a series of gifts — “presents,” he’d later remark — the annual of which he created in 1874 for gift-giving to his son Dmitri, who was 20 at the time.

The man known as “King Christmas” counted the Magi among his guests, and each year he’d invite “Russian royalty, other Russians and future European royalty,” at a lecture or dinner.

Paul Czinner enjoyed the annual evening. Credit: AP Photo/Gunther Comeau

“He had no need of charity, as he never even took into account the level of the soldier’s salary,” colleague Mark Rowntree recalled.

In the future, when age and experience have dulled his powers, the same gift — the opportunity to hear his father’s stories — will remain fresh in Rowntree’s mind. And thanks to his handwritten order and the birth of the Internet, so, too, will the many ‘risers’ who keep it running.

Today, Paul Czinner’s office bears his name. Instead of party favors, each year attendees gift gifts of ceramic plates, chairs and an assortment of other simple items — “everything a man needs if you’re a gentleman,” as Czinner himself described it. Every December the room fills with music and songs, and the room fills with presents.

The experience of those present takes on new meaning for present-givers: A 2017 analysis by PayPal found that in the US, people spend the average amount of $69.58 on their gift-givers when it comes to the occasion, compared to $41.12 for colleagues and $49.74 for families.

In the decades since his birth, the Russian author has become more widely regarded as a poet than a novelist. Credit: Vadim Savitsky/AP

Over the years, the tradition has grown into a sprawling community effort, run on little more than a stipend and limited supplies. These days, visitors hold two “gifts” on consecutive nights, with one gift given at a dinner and the other at a lecture. Guests sometimes spend more than $1,000 on gifts — raised entirely through donations, though in the past some larger companies have donated funds in order to participate in the evening.

The gift-giving takes place in Moscow during December, each year around Christmas. Credit: Vadim Savitsky/AP

Earlier this year, just a few months before his death, the “King Christmas” himself died — though the event was not his idea. He died at 81 in a hospital in Paris, from an illness so disabling that he couldn’t even leave his room in the previous eight months. While his doctors urged him to undertake a European tour, Rowntree insisted that his beloved heir would be better served at home, playing with his toy horses — of which there were far too many in the case of Uncle Paul — and leaving life his own way.

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