After last week’s introduction to Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, it’s time to look further into the ‘Russian Santa’ and his rather glamorous granddaughter. Mercifully, beneath his modern plasticised and commercial facade, something with more meat and teeth lurks, waiting. There are some skeletons in the festive cupboard!
There’s an intriguing lineage drawn way back to prehistoric, Slavic gods. In the various elements of his character and appearance, Ded Moroz appears to be an amalgamation of three deities: Zimnik, Karochun and Pozvizd, combined further with elements acquired from later figures of note.
Zimnik is the ancient god of winter – described (significantly) as being a short old man with white hair and a grey beard, bringing cold to everywhere he travels. Karochun is the frost-controlling god of the underworld who shortened the lives of mortals. Pozvizd is the storm god controlling the wind and weather. Perhaps through overlapping roles – there was obviously no protocol of demarcation amongst ancient Slavic deities – their respective positions and personas became blurred into one catch-all. This single-figure embodiment was known (in pre Ded Moroz times) as Starets Severa, who was decidedly not the cuddly Santa. (More mutations would follow).
In turn, this crusty Slavic amalgam appears as a stout and morally questionable sorcerer with a very profitable angle on the gift-giving that we associate with him today. His ancient magical staff still survives in modern depictions of Ded Moroz, incidentally; no doubt as a super-sized version of the ‘handy’ magic wand.
Yes, his personal take on ‘presents’ was decidedly different to ours. As well as travelling about, magically freezing people, he was also a child-snatcher who would only return stolen children in return for gifts as a ransom. That’s right: you gave “Santa” gifts, in return for your kidnapped children.
Curiously, his particular business model did not survive the 19th Century media’s redressing of his image into a kindly old man. The play and opera Snegurochka did much to completely reverse his cruel image, as did the tale Moroz Ivanovich, combined with the ongoing historical influence of two further characters significant to Russian culture.
St. Nicholas, although commonly associated with Western Europe, was (and is still) the patron Saint of Russian merchants. Through his deeds of benevolence he has influenced both “Santas” across the cultural divide.
At the other end of the spectrum – in terms of creed, Russians have the heroic folklore figure: Morozko, a powerful blacksmith who could bind/chain water with his iron-like, magical frosts. Again, he was benevolent towards the commoner, both in terms of deeds and the remarkable gifts that he gave them. So, it’s fair to say that the commonality between Ded Moroz and Santa Claus lies in the multifaceted, schizophrenic amalgam combined from various points of origin.
It’s worth mentioning that even though he was reborn as a gift-giving senior, he was still not bound to Christmas or New Year per se; that would come in the 20th Century. And yes, Russian ‘Christmas’ – in our terminology – is still celebrated at the year’s turn.
Another point of distinction is that the gifts he bore were not automatic seasonal handouts but rather rewards for a child’s good behaviour at any time of the year, though he does appear as an elemental winter figure.
By the early 20th Century, the metamorphosis into ‘Russian Santa’ becomes complete, even drawing upon aspects of his Western cousin, though idiosyncrasies still remain.
For a start, he is still “Grandfather Frost”, that Pagan sounding, literal translation of “Ded Moroz”, with his thick furs (an essential item for survival in ancient Russian winters) remaining intricately and elaborately decorated, compared to those of our blood-red “Santa”. Said furs were often coloured blue to draw a distinction between theirs and ours, though our red, and even silver and gold have featured, as contemporary ‘standards’ relaxed, – or should that be: slipped?
More schizophrenic festivities next week.
[Images by The Kremlin]