Some kids at school, I told Mama recently, don’t believe in Ded Moroz! They said he’s our parents!
Oh? Mama responded, non-committally.
I can’t believe how stupid they are. Not believing in Ded Moroz. The very idea!
Pffft. Said Mama, clearly agreeing with me.
In fact, I not only believe in Ded Moroz, but also in Father Christmas, who Mama says is probably a cousin, or possibly a brother. It’s confusing otherwise. That they come on different days and in different ways.
Ded Moroz, you see, is the Russian winter festival magical being who brings presents.
But not at Christmas, at New Year.
And there are some other differences.
As we all know, in the west Santa was invented by Coca Cola, but in Russia, Ded Moroz was invented by Stalin.
Well, sort of. Ded Moroz existed before that.
Originally he was a pre-Christian winter smith god called Morozko. And not entirely tame. There is talk of him kidnapping children so that their parents would give him presents.
By the 19th century he was a fairy tale character.
We went to see a play about him, in fact. It turned out that he lived in a chilly underground world you could reach by falling into a well in the middle of winter (as you do).
If you were nice to him and to the other inhabitants of this strange land, Ded Moroz would deck you out in beautiful (and expensive) jewels and warm furs that you could take home to your unpleasant stepmother and step-sister. If you were a spoilt brat, trying to reproduce this feat while utterly missing the point, those jewels would turn out to be quick to melt ice shards when you got them home.
(Mama thinks this retelling has itself been cleaned up. There was no mention of the stepmother getting her husband to leave his daughter in the forest in inadequate clothing in the middle of the winter to die of exposure, or that Ded Moroz froze the step-daughter to death for insolence, for example. Can’t think why not).
In the 20th century, Ded Moroz was supressed.
But having cancelled folklore and Christmas along with religion, the Soviets discovered that this was quite unpopular.
And so a careful rebranding of New Year eventually took place. And who better to take over from baby Jesus the important job of cheering everyone up in the middle of a seven month snow-fest than a crochety wizard?
Obviously we couldn’t have him look too much like a plagiarised Santa, though.
So he is (usually) dressed in blue. His robes are long, and decorated with rich embroidery (and fur, obviously. It’s damn cold in Russia in winter). And he has a staff (with or without a knob on the end). He rides about in a troika, a sled pulled by three horses. He even wears Russian felt boots, called valenki.
This ethnic branding has been emphatically reconfirmed in more modern times with the increasing emphasis on Slavic traditions in any relevant celebration. Like Maslenitsa.
There is also no sneaking down chimneys. He is quite happy to turn up at your door at midnight or thereabouts on the 31st with a sack of presents and his granddaughter, Snegurochka the snow maiden. Who is borrowed from another fairy tale where blah blah blah, and then she melted to death.
Ded Moroz still expects kids to earn their reward though. Children need to recite a poem or sing a song in exchange for a present.
Mama, who is not Russian, came to an arrangement with Ded Moroz a while ago that this was not going to happen in her house, so the gifts arrive under the tree in what she considers to be the correct mysterious manner. Albeit on New Year’s Eve. So when we wake up to eat a giant meal at around midnight after a bit of a pre-celebration disco nap, there they are! Miraculous!
Of course, we also get presents from Father Christmas on British Christmas Eve. But he limits himself to a reasonably sized whatever can be stuffed into a reasonably-sized sock.
Mama says she and Papa have spent quite a lot of effort, usually, on tracking down interesting things for us for not one, not two, but three gift-giving holidays (Russian Christmas is on the 7th January), and she is absolutely buggered if some old geezer with a beard is going to steal all their thunder.
Apparently you can visit Ded Moroz at his home, which is astonishingly conveniently situated a couple of hours outside of Moscow in the town, Veliky Ustyug. As discovered by Moscow Mayor Yuri Lushkov in the 90s.
But there’s no real need if you are in Russia over the holiday period. He and Snegurochka will be absolutely everywhere, and under the tree to boot. Putting carved wooden representations of Ded Moroz there is a tradition.
Or, in Soviet times (or now, because nostalgia), papier mache ones.
(Top Russian souvenir tip there by the way).
You can go to a Yolka, a special festive performance for children. There will be a play, but there will also be games, dancing and audience participation*.
We went to a very big one at Crocus City Hall, one of the bigger modern theatre and performance spaces in Moscow, which had a full sized indoor fun fair in what Mama is going to call the foyer, but is actually seven hundred large halls of activities. This made it a bit more worth the trek out of the centre to get to it.
They also have a Yolka performance at the Kremlin each year (there’s publicly accessible theatre inside the Kremlin, didn’t you know? Also good for ballet).
But frankly every single theatre, museum, park, New Year/ Christmas market, shopping mall and similar will have some kind of yolka-esque event going on, and some will even be free. There isn’t really a tradition of grottos. There’s just a really big party instead.
Or you can go to a gala ice skating performance at places like the Luzhniki sports stadium. Ded Moroz is bound to show up.
Or enter a kindergarten. Definite Ded Moroz appearances there.
I mean, I can’t promise these people are all the real Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. 2000 actors just turned up in Ryzan for the annual fake Ded Moroz and Snegurochka parade, for example. These impostors are what get the rumours about non-existence started if you ask me.
But I recommend being polite, and getting your best poem dusted off just in case.
*Do NOT confuse this with a pantomime. It’s a lot… purer. Says Mama, who is not planning to explain the jokes we don’t get if we ever go to a proper British one again.
This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the influence of fly agaric on the iconography of Father Christmas.
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