by Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
The Russians got used to not celebrating Christmas during the Soviet years; they celebrated New Year’s Day just like we celebrate Christmas. Luckily for them there was a legendary figure who fit the bill as a Santa Claus figure to help celebrate New Year, and now also Christmas. He’s known as Grandfather Frost (definitely not to be confused with Frosty the Snowman). In Russian, he’s called Ded Moroz, “d’ed” being Grandfather, “moroz” being frost. He is often accompanied by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden. In Russian Snegurochka (just FIY – sneg is the Russian word for snow.) And truly these are not modern figures made to help celebrate (and sell) a modern Christmas holiday. They are ancient mythological figures.
Grandfather Frost predates Christianity. In the pagan days, before the Russian tsar sent out envoys to compare the various religions in the area and chose the Greek Orthodox Church (choosing to differentiate their own version as Russian Orthodox), the peasants worshiped nature. Frost and snow were very important in their lives, so they made a name for the frost lord. He is a winter wizard who brought the frost and snow and he could be helpful if treated nicely, but vindictive if treated badly. Winter was a powerful figure in Russia; just look at what happened to both Napoleon and Hitler…
Frost is considered to be around 2,500 years old. He usually wears a long red wool or fur robe and boots, but no belt. He has a long bushy beard and sometimes wears a wreath of holly and sometimes a hat similar to our Santa Claus. He has also been shown wearing a crown. And he has powers. He often carries a staff which he might use for magic spells and to help him walk through the snow drifts. He doesn’t travel down chimneys either, he comes in through the front door. He travels around in a troika; that’s a carriage driven by three horses (troika means three in Russian…). Even though there are caribou in some parts of Russia, they are not widespread enough for the legend of flying reindeer. Though his troikas have been known to fly as well.
In 2002, a tradition was started between Finland and Russia where Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) crossed the border to greet Ded Moroz. They hand out gifts to all, the crowd of children dance and then they all go inside and have fun. We know that this Santa Summit was still taking place in 2016. Perhaps it still is.
The Snow Maiden is not as old a character as Grandfather Frost. She first appeared in a collection of folktales published in the 1860s by Alexander Afanasyev. He eventually collected three volumes of Russian folktales. No one knows if the story of the snow maiden goes back further, though, since he was the first to collect the stories. In her tale, she longs to be able to love her foster parents but has no heart since she is made of snow. She is granted a heart by her mother and father but melts away as she joins other children jumping over the fire. Grandfather Frost is considered her grandfather and the two of them bring joy and beauty to the snowy Russian winter.
In 1998, the Moscow Mayor proposed to officially make Veliky Ustyug the residence of Ded Moroz, The residence, which is a resort promoted as his estate, is a major tourist attraction. The town also has a post office there that answers children’s mail to Ded Moroz. Between 2003 and 2010, the post office in Veliky Ustyug received nearly 2,000,000 letters from all over Russia and worldwide. On January 7, 2008, Vladimir Putin visited the estate for the Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve celebration.
Santa Claus made some inroads in Russia during the 1990s, but Russia’s resurgence has brought a renewed emphasis on the basic Slavic character of Ded Moroz. The Russian Federation has even sponsored classes about Ded Moroz every December. People playing Ded Moroz and Snegurochka now typically make appearances at children’s parties during the winter holiday season, distributing presents and fighting off the wicked witch, Baba Yaga, who children are told wants to steal their gifts.
In November and December 2010, Ded Moroz was even one of the candidates in the running for consideration as a mascot for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
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