I’ve enjoyed a full beard ever since the mid-1970s. It’s only been completely shaved off a few times since then. The beard not only feels good, it has saved plenty of time, too. The morning ritual has been shaved down to a simple once-over the neck and upper cheeks with an electric razor. The beard and moustache are trimmed once per week. I’m sure the time savings have added up greatly. Someday I should calculate just how much.
The subject of beards came up while reading a passage about the 18th century in my old Russian history book. Tsar Pyotr Alekseyvich Romanov, better known as Peter the Great, became hung up on a major snit over beards.
The young Tsar felt unhappy that his country’s technology and culture were sadly behind the times, Pyotr took a lengthy tour of his neighboring countries in Western Europe. Following his return, the Tsar was filled with zeal as he set about to transform Russia from an agrarian land to a modern nation. History notes that Pyotr established one of the finest standing armies of the day, a state of the art navy, and the building of the city of Saint Petersburg. The resulting modernized Russia became a serious power to be reckoned with.
The Tsar didn’t stop there; he decided to update the fashion and grooming of the Russian people. That included the elimination of beards of men’s faces. Legend says that after the Tsar’s return to Moscow in 1698, a public celebration and reception took place in his honor. High ranking diplomats and court officials were in attendance.
Suddenly, Pyotr pulls out a very large straight razor. After embracing his officials, the Tsar, himself, began shaving off their beards. Because of his rank, nobody dared to question what or why this happened. After nearly every important nobleman was clean shaven, Pyotr allowed only three men to keep their beards: a very elderly man, the Church’s Patriarch, and Pyotr’s personal guardian.
Soon, the Tsar decreed that ordinary citizens must also adopt the practice of shaving their necks and faces. He enacted a law that forced the citizens and peasants to shave. Police were told to enforce the law by shaving non-compliant men on the spot.
The Tsar’s actions and decree didn’t escape protest and blowback. According to the Russian Orthodox Church, Pyotr had committed a major sin. Even Ivan the Terrible had once stated that shaving the beard is a sin the blood of the martyrs will never wash away. The church patriarch stated that shaving is a capital sin. He stated that all men living in close contact with the Tsar and men who obeyed the shaving law should be forced to renounce their religious faith.
As a partial go-around of the church’s position and as a way to help fill the royal treasury, Pyotr enacted a new decree that allowed Russians who wished to keep their beards to do so, if they paid a tax. His new fee was a progressive tax, whereas humble peasants only paid a couple of Kopeks, while wealthy merchants were assessed 100 Rubles. After payment, the men were issued a copper token coin with the words, “tax paid”.
Despite the alleged health benefits of having a beard and the economic savings because of not shaving, I’m sure that had I been alive in those days, I’m sure I would have chosen to pay the Tsar’s beard tax. Having a beard is what I prefer.
Anyway, beards do have benefits for those of us who choose to allow them to grow. Without a doubt, our faces are protected from the Sun’s Ultraviolet rays. This means that there is protection against skin cancers in the places the beard grows. As a fair-skinned man, this is important to me. There is also a reduced occurance of allergy symptoms for moustache and beard wearers. However, because allergins can be trapped close to the skin, daily washing and combing of the beard are necessary.
Although it’s just our personal opinion, many bearded men feel increased confidence in ourselves. In our minds, having and maintaining our beards is one way we express our own standards and personalities. It’s a socially acceptable way to display our gumption.
The Blue Jay of Happiness agrees with artist, writer, designer Jean Cocteau. “There is always a period when a man with a beard shaves it off. This period does not last. He returns headlong to his beard.”