Meet Father Frost and his Fairy Goddaughter Snow Maiden: Magical Characters of Winter from Russia
Ded Moroz, translated to (Grand)father Frost, or Old Man Frost, is a legendary Slavic character that makes his rounds every New Year’s Eve. Along with his companion, Snegurochka, he brings delight to children as the two provide the little ones with gifts.
Although there are undoubtedly similarities between the character of Ded Moroz and another jolly man dressed in red who delivers presents, there are certain traits of this famous icon that differ from his western counterpart as well.
Origins and Characteristics of Ded Moroz
Ded Moroz is a holiday character that has been transformed over the years. Pre-dating Christianity, Ded Moroz was a Slavic wizard, or demon, of winter. As legends show, the modern Ded Moroz favors the kind, gentle, and hardworking, but also is ready to punish any who are mean or lazy.
He was not always this way however, and today’s Father Frost, was once the ancient Morozko who, according to Russia Info Centre, was “a powerful hero and smith who chains water with his “iron” frosts.” Russian folk tales told of people “feeding” Morozko oatmeal kissel or kutya (boiled rice with raisins and honey) so he would not freeze their plants.
The darker side of Ded Moroz is also made apparent in Nikolai Nekrasov’s poem “Moroz – Red Nose;” a tale telling of Ded Moroz killing a peasant widow and orphaning her children. This cruel wizard of winter was also capable in the past of kidnapping children, and only returning them when their parents provided him with gifts.
Postcard of Ded Moroz by Matorin Nikolay Vasilyevich from 1917. (Public Domain)
Around the 19th century, the magical figure changed, and instead of kidnapping children, he now provides them with presents on New Year’s. However, his negative traits are still sometimes visible alongside his positive ones, in the stories of Father Frost - who is also called King Frost in the tales.
- Santa’s Horned Helper: The Fearsome Legend of Krampus, Christmas Punisher
- Baba Yaga, The Confounding Crone of Slavic Folklore
- Shab-e-Yalda - an ancient winter soltice celebration that commemorates the triumph of Mithra
According to tradition, Ded Moroz is about 2,000 years old, and Russian children provided him with a birthday of November 18. The home of Ded Moroz is found in Veliky Ustyug, Vologda Region, Russia, and is often visited by children and friends of Father Frost.
Ded Moroz in his home at Veliky Ustyug, Vologda Region, Russia. (Kremlin.ru/CC BY 4.0)
The holiday character can also be found travelling in and around Russia visiting children and acquaintances beginning in November, although his most important night in New Year’s Eve. This is the night that traditionally, Ded Moroz and his companion Snegurochka put presents under the fir tree (New Year’s Tree) for children to discover in the morning.
Regarding his appearance, Grandfather Frost is very similar to Father Christmas/Santa Claus. Generally, he is depicted as having a white beard and red nose and cheeks. He wears a long red coat, that is embroidered with stars and crosses, and has white fluff around the edges. He also has a red cap that is embroidered with pearls. His shirt and trousers are made of linen and also embroidered. He is often seen to be wearing red or white mittens and valenki (felt boots) on his feet. Due to his old age, and for magical powers, he also uses a pikestaff of silver or crystal.
A Short Story of King Frost
A popular tale begins with an angry stepmother who is tired of seeing and hearing her good-natured and unselfish stepdaughter, yet provides to every whim of her own daughter. One day the stepmother tells her husband to be rid of the young girl, saying: “Send her away, old man; send her away-anywhere so that my eyes shan't be plagued any longer by the sight of her, or my ears tormented by the sound of her voice. Send her out into the fields, and let the cutting frost do for her.”
“Send her away, old man…” (Public Domain)
The old man begged his wife to reconsider, but finding her unmovable, he agreed and took his daughter out to the sled. Not even providing her with a warm blanket, he left the girl with a kiss, before quickly returning to his home, daring not to look back and see his beloved daughter suffering.
The poor girl sat down beside a fir tree and began to weep quietly. Soon she heard a crackling noise and looked up to see King Frost standing beside her.
'Well, maiden,' he snapped out, 'do you know who I am? I am King Frost, king of the red-noses.'
'All hail to you, great King!' answered the girl, in a gentle, trembling voice. 'Have you come to take me?'
'Are you warm, maiden?' he replied.
'Quite warm, King Frost,' she answered, though she shivered as she spoke.
King Frost repeated his question as he came ever closer to the young girl. The cold air and the crackling increased, yet the girl continued to reply “Still warm, O King!”
Illustration for the story of King Frost. (1914) By V. Carrick. (Public Domain)
King Frost took pity on the young girl for her gentle ways and respectful words, so he wrapped her in furs, covered her in blankets, and showered in her gifts of jewels, and a fine sleigh led by six white horses.
The next morning the angry stepmother told her husband that he should go to recover the dead body of his daughter. She was shocked when the old man returned with a large chest filled with riches, and his daughter, who was more beautiful than before and dressed in fine furs and a radiant silver and gold dress. “Old man, yoke the horses at once into the sled, and take my daughter to the same field and leave her on the same spot exactly,” she ordered.
So he wrapped her in furs, covered her in blankets, and showered in her gifts of jewels… (Public Domain)
The woman’s daughter dropped herself by the fir tree and pouted. It was not long until the crackling sound began and King Frost appeared at the girl’s side.
“Are you warm, maiden?” He asked.
“What a blind old fool you must be to ask such a question!” she answered angrily. “Can't you see that my hands and feet are nearly frozen?”
“Father Frost and the step-daughter.” (1932) By Ivan Bilibin. (Public Domain)
Repulsed by the young woman’s words, King Frost got very angry, and cracking his fingers then gnashing his teeth, her froze her to death.
The stepmother grew impatient to see her daughter with the same riches as her despised stepdaughter, so she sent her husband to fetch the girl. One could only imagine her surprise and despair when he returned to the house with the frozen body of her beloved daughter…
- The Ancient Roots of Christmas Customs
- Alkonost and the Gamayun, the mythical beings of Slavic folklore
- Why Christmas is held on 25th December
Ded Moroz VS Santa Claus?
Based on their appearance and (modern) actions, it is undeniable that there are similarities between Ded Moroz and his western counterpart Santa Claus. Nevertheless, since 1989 poor Father Frost has lost his footing in many post-Soviet countries and Santa has been ushered in as his replacement in some areas, while others have shunned the whole idea.
Two countries that have made the transition following the end of the Soviet Union are Bulgaria and Ukraine. Both of the countries have opted for the more Christian form of Father Christmas/Santa Claus in place of the Communist-era Father Frost. (In Ukraine the holiday figure is called Saint Mykolay.)
The move was apparently motivated both by religion and politics - as Ded Moroz symbolically moved the emphasis away from Christmas and the religious rituals surrounding the date for Christians - which was a goal of the Communist regime.
Postage stamp depicting Ukraine’s Saint Mykolay. (Public Domain)
As for those who wished to kick out the traditional holiday figures, the BBC reported in 2012 that the Uzbekistan government had encouraged the media to stop showing the Russian characters on TV and frowned upon the use of the word “Christmas.”
The objective of the government appeared to be to diminish the role of foreign culture on local traditions. There was no outright banning of the New Year’s holiday and the two characters presenting gifts to children at the time. However, the scale and style of these events has certainly changed since Soviet times in the now predominantly Muslim country.
Tajikistan followed suit in 2013, with government officials banned the holiday figures, saying that “Father Frost, his maiden sidekick Snegurochka (Maiden Snow), and New Year’s tree will not appear on the state television this year, because these personages and attributes bear no direct relation to our national traditions, though there is no harm in them.”
In some areas, Santa Claus and Ded Moroz have actually been a way to bridge cultural divisions. This relationship may in reality be the most “natural” as both characters are often seen as symbols of love and friendship. For example, in 2010 the Finnish Santa Claus and the Belarusian Ded Moroz met in Minsk.
A Belarusian interpretation of Ded Moroz. (Public Domain)
Elsewhere, December 1997 marked the beginning of a tradition known as “Christmas Without Borders”: bringing Ded Moroz and Santa Claus together at a bridge crossing the Narva River. The aim of these meetings has been to increase cooperation between the residents of the Estonian and Russian border towns, and to make border crossings more efficient.
According to Radio Free Europe, Santa Claus and Ded Moroz represent an act of good will and offer each other “greetings including wishes of peace and prosperity in the coming years.” If the event will continue this year, is still unknown.
Featured Image: Ded Moroz and Snegurochka in the sleigh. Source: Goodfon.ru
Asia Plus. (2013). Tajik official confirms information about banning Father Frost from New Year’s broadcasts. http://news.tj/en/news/tajik-official-confirms-information-about-banning-father-frost-new-year-s-broadcasts
Belarus. By. (2010). Finnish Santa Claus and Belarusian Father Frost. http://www.belarus.by/en/press-center/photo/belarusian-father-frost-and-finnish-santa-claus-_ti_102_0000000512.html
Domnitskaya, M. (2011). Father Frost celebrates his birthday. http://vologda-oblast.ru/en/newsflash/official_actions/father_frost_celebrates_his_birthday/?sphrase_id=871413
Kostadinov, P. (2005). Traditions old and new: From Father Frost to Father Christmas. http://sofiaecho.com/2005/12/26/648046_traditions-old-and-new-from-father-frost-to-father-christmas
Lang, A. (1894) The Yellow Fairy Book. http://www.mythfolklore.net/andrewlang/017.htm
The Moscow Times. (2014). Kiev Brings Back Orthodox Santa Claus Instead of Soviet-Era Father Frost. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/kiev-brings-back-orthodox-santa-claus-instead-of-soviet-era-father-frost/511488.html
Myths & Legends. (2006) The Snow Maiden. http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/textonly2648-the-snow-maiden.html
Qobil, R. (2012). Father Christmas off air in Uzbekistan. http://www.bbc.com/news/20701831
Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. (2006). Estonia/Russia: Santa Claus Shakes Hands with Father Frost. http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1064346.html
Russia Info Centre. (2007) Father Frost the Red Nose. http://www.russia-ic.com/culture_art/traditions/642/
Sabzalieva, E. (2013). New Year, new you? Father Christmas redesigned, Uzbek style. https://sabzalieva.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/new-year-new-you-father-christmas-redesigned-uzbek-style/
Taplin, P. (2010) Reveling in Russian Santa’s Fairytale Home. http://rbth.com/articles/2010/12/15/reveling_in_russian_santas_fairytale_home05209.html
Xenophontovna Kalamatiano de Blumenthal, V. (1903) Folk Tales from the Russian. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ftr/chap09.htm