DONESTK, Ukraine: The big tree with the glimmering holiday lights is up but the festive spirit is missing on Lenin Square in the heart of east Ukraine’s rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
Hundreds of people huddled in the drizzle for the traditional unveiling of the tree ahead of the New Year holiday in this Orthodox Christian country, where Christmas is celebrated on January 7.
Children recited poems on the stage and Russian pop music blared from loudspeakers as an inflatable snowman bobbed in the cold wind.
But after eight months of fighting between government forces and Russian-backed rebels that has torn the region apart and left more than 4,700 dead, people admitted they were not feeling too joyful.
“If I have any sense of a holiday mood then it is buried very deep down,” said Svetlana Mashilina, standing next to her husband Vladimir.
“It’s difficult in this situation as it can be calm one minute but then the next you’ll hear an explosion somewhere,” said the stocky local.
“But I guess if you can’t smile or laugh then what’s the point in being alive?”
Thanks to a lull in fighting since a fresh ceasefire was announced earlier this month, a semblance of normal life has returned to the streets of the largest rebel-held city.
Public transport is running and markets are open in the onetime industrial hub.
But the occasional boom of heavy artillery can still be heard on the outskirts and most shops are shuttered as the conflict has drained people’s livelihoods and seen the central government in Kiev pull welfare payments.
“There is no comparing the situation now to last year– it is very complicated,” middle-aged market vendor Lyubov told AFP, refusing to give her surname.
“The war has taken away people’s wages and pensions and money,” she said, standing in front of her women’s clothing stall.
“Some people still come as beauty will always exist, but not many. Buying food is more important now than material goods.”
And despite the attempts to create some holiday spirit, the rebel authorities who have now cemented their armed takeover of scraps of the east warn that the situation is not likely to improve soon.
“This year we have together gone through the toughest of all trials,” said Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in a New Year address.
Despite the drop-off in fighting of late, however, he warned that there would inevitably be a return to all-out war sooner or later.
“Our biggest battles are still ahead of us,” he said.
Such grim predictions are casting a dark shadow over the holiday season.
Since the start of the conflict in April, pensioner Lyudmila Yezhednova says she has been dressing up every day as Grandfather Frost — the local equivalent of Santa Claus — to try and spread a bit of cheer.
But rather than the presents she has been handing out, people really just want one thing — peace.
“Children have been writing me letters asking that if I have any magic powers, can I use them to create some peace and stability,” she says, adjusting her red velvet coat.
“That would be the best gift that anyone could give us.”
Despite the hardships, some people said they remained determined to celebrate this year, if only in a minimal way.
“Of course for our children and grandchildren we have to have presents and some sort of holiday,” said teacher Tatyana Kravchenko.
“We have already got used to the war and the suffering, but what we really need is for it to snow.”