The Snow Maiden of Slavic Folklore: 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 (Snow Maiden), he brings delight to children as the two provide the little ones with gifts. The figure of Snow Maiden is one special addition that sets the story of Ded Moroz apart from similar winter holiday icons and is essential to many New Year’s celebrations.
Characteristics and Origins of Snow Maiden
Snegurochka (diminutive) or Snegurka, (Snow Maiden, Snow Girl, or Snowy in English) is a Russian character that is relatively new to Slavic fairy tales (when compared to her “godfather” Ded Moroz) - it was not until the early 19th century that she first appeared in folk legends. Nonetheless, the kind and gentle soul that is depicted in her character meant that she soon became a beloved protagonist for children’s stories.
1912 paintings of Snow Maiden and Father Frost by Nicholas Roerich. (Public Domain)
It was not until Soviet times that the Snow Maiden became the famous companion of Ded Moroz and their New Year’s travels began. Before that, she was a common figurine that appeared on fir trees and other decorations for Christmas.
A decoration of Snegurochka to hang on the fir tree. (CC BY SA 2.0)
Regarding her appearance, Snegurochka is depicted as having shining blue eyes, cherry lips, snow white skin, and fair hair that is often braided or curly. She is said to be forever young and beautiful. The Snow Maiden’s original attire consisted of white clothing and a crown that was embroidered with silver and pearls. However, her fashion choice has changed over time, and now she can be found in a blue, white, or red outfit, topped with either her crown or a large cap with fur around the edges.
A modern depiction of Ded Moroz and Snegurochka in Belarus. (Public Domain)
Some legends say that Snegurochka is the daughter of Father Frost and the Snow Queen. Those who believe this say that the young girl is rooted in Slavic Pagan beliefs. Others say that she is the granddaughter of Frost. However, the more popular origins of the Snow Maiden explain her existence as a snow sculpture that Father Frost brought to life. (Similar to the idea of Frosty the Snowman.)
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In the fairy tales, Snow Maiden lived in the Russian city of Kostroma. Nowadays, the Snow Maiden lives in Veliky Ustyug, Russia with her (fairy) Godfather or Grandfather, Ded Moroz. The residence of the two winter icons is frequented by children and their friends.
Short Tale of Snow Maiden
One of the most popular stories of the creation of Snow Maiden begins deep within a Russian forest during the winter. Here lived a childless elderly couple in a small log cabin. The husband and wife were very hardworking and generous, but also they were lonely living in the cold cabin and had no one to help care for them.
One day the couple were gathering wood, when they remembered their youthful days of creating snow figures, and decided to make a snow girl. They used beautiful blue beads for her eyes, a red ribbon for her mouth, and gave her dimples to enhance her smile.
They remembered their youthful days of creating snow figures and decided to make a snow girl. (Missemouse)
When they finished the old man said to his wife, “Our daughter Snegurochka.” The woman smiled but the thought brought tears to her eyes. At that moment there was a crackling sounds that ran through the air. The old man and woman stopped to listen as they looked around them.
However, they did not see the winter spirit of Father Frost who had been watching them working diligently at their beautiful snow sculpture. The winter magician felt pity for the elderly couple and decided to help them. Raising his staff, he sent a ripple of magic through the icy air to the snow girl.
An animated film based on the opera by Alexander Ostrovsky – turn on English subtitles.
As dusk was beginning to fall, the old woman told her husband it was time they returned home. But before they left, they could not help themselves but to cast once last longing glance towards the daughter that had never been…
To their surprise and delight, in the place of the snow sculpture they saw a pretty young girl all dressed in white with flaxen hair and shining blue eyes. The girl approached the couple and said, “If it pleases you, I have come to be your daughter and will care for you as my mother and father."
They saw a pretty young girl all dressed in white with flaxen hair and shining blue eyes… Painting of Snow Maiden (1899) by Viktor M. Vasnetsov. (Public Domain)
The elderly couple grasped the young girl’s hands and joyfully led her to the log cabin. There, the happy family lived contentedly for some time. The young maiden helped them with chores and cared deeply for her parents. However, there was a distance in the young girl’s eyes and she often spent time surrounded by the trees and forest creatures as well.
Figures of Father Frost and Snow Maiden providing gifts to their animal friends in an animated holiday show. (CC BY NC ND 2.0)
The time for winter celebrations soon came and Snegurochka took to watching the people who passed by the log cabin on their way to town. Wanting their daughter to be happy, the elderly couple encouraged her to take part in the festivities.
Thus, Snegurochka headed into town and was content to watch the many happy faces that were enjoying the holidays. It was not long before her beauty caught the eye of a young man who played the flute. Almost immediately he fell deeply in love with her, and the two were soon almost inseparable.
Snow Maiden with her parents as her lover looks on. (CC BY NC 2.0)
However, one day Snegurochka was walking through the forest, when Father Frost appeared before her. He warned her that she must be careful of her new relationship and the upcoming spring. Snegurochka was too filled with love for her new companion, so all Father Frost could do was watch her as she headed to meet the young man.
One day Snegurochka was walking through the forest, when Father Frost appeared before her… Postcard of Snegurochka circa 1917 by Matorin Nikolay Vasilyevich. (Public Domain)
The spring soon came, and Snegurochka was leaving the home of her loving family to meet her beloved at the edge of the forest. She heard him playing the flute and the music was so beautiful that she soon began to cry. He was as happy to see her as she was him, and as she ran towards him she forgot Father Frost’s words of warning.
As she stepped out of the shade of the forest, her feet began to melt… and within moments the snow maiden had vanished. The young man was heartbroken and brought the news to her parents. The elderly couple were devastated as well, but in their wise ways they had understood that their snow daughter would not be with them forever.
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However, this was not the end of Snegurochka, as Father Frost was quick to catch the icy wind that arose when she had disappeared. He brought her spirit far to the frozen lands of the north and there she regained her human form.
Snegurochka in the forest (1925) by Boris Zvorykin. (Public Domain)
Tradition says that Snegurochka and Father Frost spend the warmer days high up in the colder region, but each year when the cold winds blow further south, so too do the winter magician and his fairy goddaughter return to visit the gentle spirits so similar to the kind elderly couple. They also delight in bringing happiness to the good children in the form of gifts each New Year’s.
Postcard of Ded Moroz and Snegurochka decorating the New Year’s Tree. (CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Featured Image: Painting of Snow Maiden (1899) by Viktor M. Vasnetsov. (Public Domain)
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