Some years ago I published an article about the instruction of the Western calendar in Russia by Peter I and the abolishment of the ancient Slavic calendar, counting over 7500 years of history.
While that article is true in all respects, as it is usual with our history, there are even more layers of alterations as one starts delving deeper into a topic. This is also so with the Russian calendar, and the tradition of New year celebration. For those who have not read it, I strongly advise you to read the previous article before continuing with the materials below. There I touch upon the linguistic aspects and two different words for “year” in Russian – “leto” (meaning both “year” and “summer”) and “god” (meaning “year”, with the overt reference to the Dutch word for “God”). In fact the first of the four articles below carries an explanation for why years were counted in summers…
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The materials below are comprised of translations of four articles, originally published in “Argumenty i Fakty”, and uncover more details around Peter I reform, then going to the origins of the characters of “(Grand)father Frost” and the “Snow Maiden”. The articles can be read independently, but for a better understanding I would recommend reading them all in order.
- The Tzar and the Tree. Why Peter I moved New year to January the 1st
- Bonfires for the ancestors and the gifts to the terrifying Grandfather. How New Year was celebrated in Russia
- Snow-mai-den! The history of the Russian character, which has no analogues
- According to Old Style. Why did the New year made do without a Tree
The new year’s day was moved twice in Russia. Until the XV century it was celebrated in March, then in September, and in 1699 Peter I “appointed” celebration for January the 1st. SPB.AIF.RU he tells how it happened and how the Russians met the change.
© / Mariluna / Commons.wikimedia.org
Russian New year is a holiday that incorporates the customs of paganism, Christianity and European enlightenment (Translator note: this is a common note in the Russian self-deprecation that can be, alas, seen in many publications and general attitude, which, incidentally, took hold in Russia around Peter I times). On December the 20th, 1699 by the decree of Emperor Peter I “On the celebration of the New year”, which suddenly threw the whole country three months forward – the Russians, accustomed to celebrating the New year in September, had to welcome it on the 1st of January in 1700. SPB.AIF.RU tells how it came to pass.
The echo of paganism
Until the end of the XV century, Spring was considered to be the end of the annual cycle in Russia (the same ideas still exist in some countries of Central Asia). Before the adoption of Christianity this holiday was associated exclusively with pagan beliefs. It is known that the Slavic paganism was closely intertwined with the cult of fertility, so the new year was met when the earth awakens from winter sleep – in March, with the first vernal equinox.
Before that, during the winter solstice, it was preceded by 12-day-long “Kolyady” (Carolling), from which came the tradition of “mummers” going from house to house, singing songs, and throwing grain at the threshold, a tradition that has survived until the present. And now still, in many remote corners of Russia and the former USSR, it is customary to give to the “mummers” pancakes and kutja (porridge with honey and raisins, nowadays made of rice, which is, incidentally, also used at the funerals). In the ancient times these dishes were traditionally put on the window sills to appease the spirits.
Carolling came to us from pagan times. Photo: Commons.wikimedia.org
With the adoption of Orthodoxy, the ceremonial side of the welcoming of the new year has, of course, changed. The Orthodox Church had for a long time not imparted much importance to that tradition, but in 1495 this holiday’s turn came – it was officially transferred to September the 1st. On this day several ceremonies were held in the Kremlin: “On the beginning of new year (leto)”, “On a the parting of the year (letoprovozhdenoe – летопровождение)” and “The act of the long-lasting health”. The celebration was opened by the Patriarch and the Tsar on the Cathedral square of the Moscow Kremlin, their procession was accompanied by a bell ringing. Since the end of the XVII century, the tzar and retinue went out to the people in the most elegant clothes, and boyars were ordered to do likewise. The choice fell on September, because it was believed that God created the world in September. With the exception of the solemn Church service, the New year was celebrated like any other holiday – with guests, songs, dances and treats. It was then called differently – “The first day of the year.”
Winter is near
The tradition had been preserved for almost 200 years, after which a whirlwind of changes by the name Pyotr (Peter) Alexeyevich Romanov burst into the life of the Russian people. As you know, the young Emperor almost immediately after the ascension to the throne began tough reforms aimed at eradicating old traditions (translator highlighting). After travelling through Europe, he became inspired by the Dutch manner of celebrating the New year. In addition, he did not want to walk around the Cathedral square in embroidered gold vestments – he wanted the fun that he saw abroad.
On December the 20th, 1699 (it was year 7208 on the old calendar), on the threshold of a new century, the Emperor issued a decree, which read: “…Volohovs, Moldavians, Serbs, Dalmatins, Bulgarians and the most of His great sovereign subjects Cherkassian, and all the Greeks, from whom our Orthodox faith was adopted, all those peoples shall number they their years from the birth of Christ, eight days thereafter, that is, on January, the first day, and not from the creation of the world (or peace), because of much differences in counting in those years (leto), while counting from Christ’s birth comes to 1699, additionally on coming January the 1st day both the new year 1700, as well as new hundred-year-century are dawning; and for that good and useful goal, commanding to forthwith count the years in orders, in state affairs, and in all matters beginning with the current January the 1st in the year 1700 from the birth of Christ.”
Fragment of Peter I decree of 1699. Photo: Commons.wikimedia.org
The decree was long and very detailed. It stipulated that all should decorate the house with spruce, pine and juniper branches and to not remove the decorations until the 7th of January. Nobility and simply wealthy citizens were ordered to shoot cannons in the yards at midnight, and shoot into the air with guns and muskets, while a grand fireworks display was arranged on the Red Square.
On the streets the Emperor ordered to burn bonfires of wood, twigs and resin and to maintain the fires throughout the holiday week. By 1700, almost all European countries had already switched to the Gregorian calendar, so Russia began to celebrate the New year 11 days later than Europe.
A frightening change
September the 1st remained a Church holiday, but after Peter’s reform, it somehow faded into the background. The last time the rite of the “passing of the year” was performed on September 1, 1699 in the presence of Peter, who sat on the Kremlin Cathedral square on the throne in royal clothes, receiving the blessing from the Patriarch and congratulating the people with the New year, as his grandfather did. After that, the magnificent autumn celebration was abolished – by Peter’s will, the traditions of enlightened Europe merged with pagan nature, from which remained the rites of wild fun.
For the common folk all this was as incomprehensible, as the requirement to shave their beards and dress in a Western manner had been previously for the boyars. The commotion that happened at first, is described in Alexei Tolstoy’s historical novel “Peter the First”:
«Such ringing has not been heard in Moscow for a long time. They said: Patriarch Adrian, in no way daring to contradict the tzar, gave the sextons a thousand roubles and fifty barrels of strong Patriarchal half-beer for their bell-ringing. The bells on the belfries and bell towers were ringing for all their worth. Moscow was shrouded in smoke, steam from horses and people… Through the bell ringing, one could hear throughout Moscow the cracking gunshots, bellowing salvoes of cannons. Dozens of sledges were racing in gallop, full of drunks and mummers, smeared with soot, dressed in turned coats. They lifted up their feet, waving with bottles, yelling, raging, felling at the stations out in heaps under the feet of the common people, stupefied from the ringing and smoke. The Tsar with his court, with that sucker-up prince, old wayward Nikita Zotov, with the joker archbishops – clad in the archdeacon’s robes with cat tails – went round noble houses. Drunk and well-fed – they descended like locusts – not so much eating as throwing, shouting spiritual songs, urinating under the tables. They’d drink the hosts silly, and on they went further. So as not to gather from different places on the next day, they fell over to sleep right there on someone’s yard. They joyfully criss-crossed Moscow from end to end, and congratulated on the coming of the new year and the new century. The townspeople, quiet and God-fearing, lived these days in anguish, they were afraid to even step out of their homes. It was not clear – what was such frenzy for? Was it the Devil whispering to the tzar’s ear to stir up the people, breaking an old tradition – the backbone of the livelihood… Though they did not live in luxury, they lived honestly, saved every penny, knew right from wrong. And all this was bad for him, not to his taste. Those not recognising the pomp and fanfare gathered in the basements for the all-night vigils. Whispers were spreading again, that they had only to survive till the carnival: the trumpet would sound from Saturday to Sunday, heralding the final judgement…»
On the sixth of January the first “pro-Western” celebrations in Russian history ended in Moscow with a “procession to Jordan”. Contrary to the ancient custom, the tzar did not go behind the clergy in richly embroidered robes, but rather stood on the bank of the Moscow river in military uniform, surrounded by the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky regiments, dressed in green coats and jackets with gold buttons and braid.
The boyars and servitors did not escape the attention of the Emperor either – they were obliged to dress in the Hungarian dresses and their wives to dress in foreign clothes. This was torture for all assembled – the centuries-old way of life was crumbling around them, and the new rules looked uncomfortable and intimidating.
The New year celebrations were repeated like this every winter thereafter, and gradually both the Christmas trees, and midnight cannon volleys, and masquerades caught on.
How New Year was celebrated in Russia
Article from the newspaper: weekly “Arguments and Facts” № 52 26/12/2018
Where did the tradition of dressing up and “Kolyada” (trick-or-treating) come from, why did our ancestors celebrate the New year in the spring and why didn’t the prototype of Grandfather Frost give gifts, but rather collected them, a historian tells about it to “AIF-Chernozem”.
New year is the most favourite holiday of Russians – our ancestors celebrated it first in spring, then in autumn, and then in winter, but by the old calendar style (Translator note: the “old style” is the pre-Revolution Julian calendar). The common omen for these celebrations was the following: as you greet the New year, so you shall spend it. Therefore, we’ve always tried to lay a rich table and have fun with all of our heart. How exactly the winter holidays were celebrated in the olden days, “AIF-Chernozem” learned from the associate Professor of Russian literature of XX and XXI centuries, the theory of literature and folklore of Voronezh State University (VSU), Tatyana Pukhova.
Waiting for the first star
Anastasia Khodykina, “AIF-Chernozem”: Tatyana Fyodorovna, only a few days are left till the New year, the Russians are buying gifts for the loved ones, decorating the Christmas trees in their homes. And what would our ancestors have been doing at this time?
Tatyana Pukhova was born in 1956 in Voronezh. She graduated from the Philology Department of the Voronezh State Pedagogical Institute. Since 1986, she is the organizer of the annual folklore student expeditions to the villages of the Voronezh region. On the initiative of Pukhova, the Museum of Folk Culture and Ethnography was opened in VSU in 2006.
Tatiana Pukhova: Already in the early twentieth century, on the New year’s eve people were preparing of the Yuletide (Svjatki, Святки). The hostesses cooked a ritual meal — “sochivo”, in southern areas it was called “kutja”. This is a well-boiled whole wheat porridge with honey and dried berries. Nowadays kutja is cooked from rice, with added raisins, honey or sugar.
On Christmas eve, December the 24th, one was supposed to wait for the first star, and only then allowed to start the ritual meal. After that Kolyada (Carolling) began. Groups of children, youth and the elderly — all separately — walked through the yards with a star on a pole, which was usually made of paper, with sequins and ornaments, and performed “koljadki” (carols) and “ovsenniki” (oat songs) (Translator note: Ovsenniki are well described in this Russian Wikipedia entry. They are the Central-Russian appraisal songs, along with the Northern-Russian “vinogradja” – “grapevine songs” and the Southern-Russian “koljadki”. The name “ovsenniki” is a talking name – it refers to the oats, which was used in the ritual, and also refers to the word “sejat'” – in modern English, the word of the same root and with the same meaning is “to seed” – that actually points to a spring-time origin of the ritual). In the Southern districts, inhabited mostly by Ukrainians, they are also called “shedrovki” (“generosity songs”). All these songs began with an appeal to the owners: “Kolyada came on Christmas eve!” Then the carollers praised the owner of the house, noted that he was kind, good and rich, that he has everything, but things needs to be even better. Then they wished the owners to have such a harvest, so as “to bake a whole pie from a single grain”!
Skimpiness was not accepted: it was believed that the rich gifts would guarantee the well-being of the family in the coming year. In addition, if the gifts seemed too modest to the carollers, they threatened: “With no pie to us – we take the cow by the horns!”. And they could even do some mischief in the yard, for example, break the gates. (Translator note: compare to the similar Western-European tradition of Halloween and trick-or-treat.)
And in many villages they’d in addition “glorify Christ” – perform texts with Christian content, so-called “hristoslavija” (“Christopraisals”), mentioning Christ, virgin Mary, saints Basil and Ilya.
Fortune-telling and “warming of the dead”
— What is Kolyada and where did the mummers come from?
— Actually, Kolyada is what the ancient Slavs called the new Sun. It is a pagan festivity – the first day of the winter solstice. On this day, the Slavs lit the wheel and let it roll from a mountain, saying: “burn, burn brightly, so as not to go out.” People rejoiced that the dark days were coming to an end and the sunny days were coming, though not quite so soon. But this time was also considered to be dangerous, because the Sun is still young, and the darkness – or the evil spirits – are raging vengefully, with raging frosts, blizzards… People sought to resist this phenomenon, and even to scare away evil spirits. Therefore they tried to both look and behave unusually.
Thus, men would dress up in women’s clothes, women — in men’s, children dressed up as adults, they would cloth in turned inside out fur coats. They painted faces with whatever was available – rubbed in soot, made beetroot or carrot blush, cut up potatoes and inserted them as “teeth”. Sometimes they made masks from bark of a tree, cutting out in it holes for eyes and the mouth. The door of the hut, which hosted the Christmas get-togethers, suddenly unfolded, and the people would be running in with songs, noise and rolling in a wheel — the symbol of the Sun. (Translator note: take note of the common root in the following words: Kolyada – koleso [“wheel”] – kolovrat [“rotation of the wheel of time”, the change of seasons, the symbol of which the Nazis misappropriated and perverted] – kolodar (“the gift of the circulation”) – kalendar [well, “calendar”])
Also during the Yuletide, which lasted for two weeks, they’d be fortune-telling. In the Osetrivka settlement of the Bogucharsky uyezd (“district”) (now the Voronezh region) a kind of divination was the eavesdropping of the groom’s name; in the village Puzevo of the Bobrovsky uyezd they practised divination with a mirror.
The people also commemorated their dead relatives during these days – they’d light ritual fires of straw around the yard or in the garden. There were severe frosts, and people, worrying about ancestors, tried thus to warm them.
On New year’s eve it was customary to gather grain from the last sheaf cut in autumn, come into the house and perform “sowing”: “I am sowing, sowing, sowing, New year welcoming!” The hosts and the stove were sprinkled with the seeds, and it was a wish for a good harvest. Christmas ended on January the 6th – on the 19th according to the the new style – with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, when people dipped into the ice hole.
— When did the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree and greeting of Grandfather Frost come to the Chernozem (Black Earth) region?
— Let’s note that our ancestors initially celebrated the New year in the spring. Then there was no special ideology, peasants were engaged in work in the field. Taking care of the new harvest begins in early spring, so the New year was associated with the beginning of the preparation for the sowing. We see the traces of that festivity in Maslenitsa (“Butter festivities”). It is no accident that during Maslenitsa one was supposed to eat very well, because as you meet the New year, so the rest of the year shall be. However, with the adoption of Christianity, the spring New year was turned into “cheese New year”. And in 1492, when Byzantium fell, the date of the new year celebration was postponed to September the 1st. The year started to begin for the peasants inversely – with the completion of the field works, and so the “autumn New year” did not get the nation-wide adoption among people.
Most of the traditions of the modern holiday were laid out by Peter I: by his decree, he ordered to transfer the celebration of the New year to January the 1st. The new year of 1700 was counted using a new chronology – however, a few days later, than in Europe. At the same time materialised the long New year holidays.
So New year’s eve, as we know it – with a decorated Christmas tree, snow and Chiming of the Kremlin clock is not such an old tradition! By the way, Grandather Frost was originally a formidable pagan spirit, and we can find many of his prototypes among the Slavic gods: they are Zimnik (“Winterer”), responsible for the crackling frost, and severe Karachun. In pre-Christian times, Grandfather Frost did not bring gifts — on the contrary, gifts were sacrificed in his honour. A caroller, dressed scarier than everyone else, was called Grandfather and did not utter a word. Perhaps this character became the prototype of the modern Grandfather Frost.
Translator note: as an aside, I want here to recommend the film Twelve Months (with English subtitles), which is based on the poem of Samuel Marshak, which is in turn based on the surviving legends of the Slavic gods:
Russian New year coincided with the European only in 1918, when the “new style” was introduced. So now the New year falls on the Orthodox Fast, which the believers try to observe, although, admittedly, on this day the Church allows some indulgences. The traditional practices, however, lost their ritual meaning and are often perceived just as entertainment. Still, some kids would sometimes come carolling to the 10th floor of the building where I live, and I always prepare small gifts for these days.
The unique New year character, which has no analogues in other countries – the Snow Maiden – does not abandon the lives of the Russians even when they grow up.
New year in Russia is unthinkable without the traditional fairy tandem — Grandfather Frost and Snow Maiden.
Sweet, kind, unique
The girl accompanying the main magician, who is customarily named as his granddaughter, is unique. As you know, there are many analogues of Grandfather Frost — starting, of course, with Santa Claus. The Snow Maiden has no analogues at all. Mrs. Claus, Santa’s wife, as well as other female witches from different countries, do not coincide with our Snow Maiden in either the image or in functionality.
It bears not thinking, but Snow Maiden has become more popular with us, than Grandfather Frost. In recent years, psychologists began to recommend parents and kindergarten teachers not to invite Grandfather Frost to the youngest — they say, a bearded man with a staff, talking in bass, can scare them. But the Snow Maiden is given the “green light” – even the most timid preschoolers are drawn to the cute girl.
“Reprisal” over Kostroma
So Where did the Snow Maiden come from?
According to one version, the roots of Grandfather Frost’s granddaughter come directly from Kostroma’s funeral ceremony. The Slavic ritual burial of Kostroma was a farewell to winter and at the same time a request to the forces of nature to bring fertility to the land. According to one version of the rite, a straw-stuffed doll of the girl was drowned in the river, according to the second, it was burned at the stake, like Maslenitsa. In yet another variant, Kostroma became drunk to death with wine at a merry feast, which makes it very close to hearth of all the lovers of Christmas get-togethers.
However, a number of historians write that the Slavic Kostroma had no relation to winter whatsoever, and the ceremony of its “funeral” is the seeing off of Spring and the welcoming of Summer.
It is noteworthy that the forerunners of Grandfather Frost and Snow Maiden from the Slavic mythology were quite complex characters. No one particularly expected gifts from them – one would be lucky to get away in one piece.
An unpopular play by a popular playwright
But back to the Snow Maiden. She was not present in the folk rituals, but could be found in the folk lore. There was a fairy tale told among people of a girl, made of snow – Snezhevinochka (or Snowflaky), who became a consolation for an elderly childless couple. In most variants of the tale Snezhevinochka melts. But there are “criminal” variants, where she is killed in the woods by the envious, treacherous girlfriends. By magic Snezhevinochka comes to life, while her killers a merrily sent to the forest — to be eaten by animals.
The story of the Snow Maiden (Snegurka or Snezhevinochka) was told in 1867 by the collector of folklore Alexander Afanasyev in the book “Poetic Views of the Slavs on Nature”.
Afanasyev’s book impressed the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, who in 1873 wrote the play “Snow Maiden”. In this story, the Snow Maiden appears in an image, which is familiar to us today — a pale blonde in white and blue winter clothes. It was here that the Snow Maiden for the first time appears with Grandfather Frost, who turns out to be her… father. And in the role of her mother is Vesna-Krasna (Spring the Beautiful), who was not able to resist manly charisma of the white-bearded magician. However, the story of the Snow Maiden as told by Ostrovsky is sad: left in the care of people, she becomes a victim of misunderstanding and jumping over the fire.
Rimsky-Korsakov creates a masterpiece
Ostrovsky’s plays were very popular, but for some reason this one was greeted coolly. Perhaps the Snow Maiden would not have become popular if in 1882 the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov had not created an opera, based on Ostrovsky’s play.
The opera “Snow Maiden” was a stunning success with the public. Alexander Ostrovsky wrote: «The music for my “Snow Maiden” is amazing, I could never have imagined anything more suitable for her, and so vividly expressing all the poetry of the Russian pagan cult and of this at first snow-cold, but then uncontrollably passionate heroine of the fairy tale.»
From that moment on the Snow Maiden became popular and beloved by the people. Moreover, she began to be included in the pre-revolutionary Christmas performances. However, there she was not so much an independent character, as a participant in the scenes taken from Ostrovsky’s play.
“Right hand” of Grandfather Frost
Then the Revolution broke out, for over two decades the New year ceased to be recognized as a holiday by the authorities, not to mention Christmas.
But when in the 1930s the New year came back, the Snow Maiden got the place of the “right hand” of Grandfather Frost at children’s performances. By the way, she was already then a mediator between the most fearful of the kids and the frightening, but kindly magician.
Grandfather Frost and Snow Maiden appeared for the first time together during the New Year Tree festivity in the Moscow House of Unions at the celebration of the New year of 1937. In the originally scripts, Snow Maiden was designated as a little girl, but over the years authors would allow her “to grow up”, as a result making her at least as old as a girl on issue.
It is possible that this change in form was caused solely by practical considerations — because students of theatre schools and novice theatre artists could much better cope with the roles of the children party hostesses, than primary school students.
A grown-up girl with her own property
Unlike Grandfather Frost, the fate of the Sow Maiden hung for some time in the balance — for example, her character disappeared from the New year celebrations during the War period.
Two famous Soviet writers Lev Kassil and Sergey Mikhalkov saved the Snow Maiden. They wrote the scripts of the Kremlin New Year Tree festivities in the early 1950s, and made the granddaughter of Grandfather Frost a mandatory participant of the performances. Only after that did the Snow Maiden finally “stake” her place near the New Year tree.
Now the Snow Maiden is an independent girl, and she has her own residence, located in Kostroma. It was in these parts playwright Alexander Ostrovsky wrote a play about the Snow Maiden in his estate Shchelykovo.
Actually, the growing up of this character by 1990s have reached a point where for some men, the image of the Snow Maiden was not a happy memory from childhood, but rather a sexual fantasy. It is unlikely that this can be considered as an achievement of the Snow Maiden, but at the same time it proves — the granddaughter of Grandfather Frost does not go away from the lives of Russians even when they grow up.
This translation of the article from newspaper AIF Health No. 52 25/12/2017 is a good summary to the three articles above, while in itself shedding more light on the history of the seasonal celebrations.
We can not imagine the New year and Christmas without a fir tree, Grandfather Frost and Snow Maiden. But is was not always that these these attributes were present at this holiday.
Old postcard with Grandfather Frost and Snow Maiden. © / Public Domain
Instead of an oak
They say that the tradition of decorating a Christmas fir tree was started by St. Boniface. Preaching in the VIII century Christianity to the pagans, he decided to cut down a sacred oak tree which they worshipped to show that the tree had no power. When the oak fell, it felled all the trees around it except a fir. And Boniface declared that tree to be of the Christ.
According to another version, the Christian Church simply appropriated the ancient custom. Ancient Celts already had the tradition to decorate a fir-tree. On winter solstice, December 21-22, one was supposed to appease the forest God, bringing him a sacrifice of animals. The innards of the poor lambs were hung on the tree. Later, the rite ceased to be so cruel and the guts were replaced with the apples, ears of corn, and with figures of birds and animals.
In Russia, the New year fir-tree appeared thanks to Peter I. The tsar not only ordered to celebrate the New year on the first of January (the New year was prior to that celebrated on September 1), but also issued a special decree, according to which it was mandated to decorate the façades of the buildings with branches of coniferous tree, Western-style. The subjects considered the decree to be very strange – in Russia, the spruce branches were associated with the burial rite. Therefore, only a few listened to tzar’s order – only the owners of taverns hung spruce paws at the entrance to their institutions. After that, for many centuries, the bitter drunks became called “Elkin” (“Sprucer”).
The tradition of bringing fir-tree into the house appeared in Russia only in 1817 thanks to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. The daughter of the Prussian king decided to celebrate Christmas according to the Western model and arranged a home fir-tree in her private chambers.
The custom to celebrate the New year under the tree lasted a little over a hundred years. After the Revolution and the Civil war, when the Bolsheviks ultimately came to power, the trees were recognized as a bourgeois relic and forgotten.
The New year tree only became rehabilitated in 1935. Soviet statesman and propagandist Pavel Postyshev in his article in the newspaper “Pravda” called the attacks on the tree “a leftist bend”, and the tree returned to the homes of the Soviet citizens. However, not as a symbol of Christmas, but as an indispensable attribute of the New year.
Grandfather Frost and Santa Clause
The usual image of Grandfather Frost is that of a cheerful kind old man with a bag of gifts-this. However, our ancestors imagined him quite differently. Karachun was the name that the ancient Slavs gave to the lord of blizzards and cold weather, and he was not a kindly grandfather. This was a stern old man with a long white beard, a blue caftan and a magic staff. He’d touch the windows with it, and they would promptly become covered with frost, touch the river – and it would immediately freeze over.
Karachun had no remorse for people – he would sometimes freezes travellers to death, at others he’d steal children and take them to his cold underworld. Karachun’s entourage is also nothing like the lovely deer of Grandfather Frost. Karachun was escorted by the blizzard birds, snowstorm wolves, restless bears and the souls of men, frozen to death.
Karachun was honoured on December 21st – 22nd, on the day of the winter solstice. To please the vicious old man, our ancestors left to Karachun some “kutya” (special porridge), believing that it will save the inhabitants of the house from the wrath of the Lord of the Blizzard. (Translator note: there is a similar Scandinavian tradition of leaving the porridge out for the house-gnomes in order to appease them.)
Once Christianity came to Rus, the pagan gods were replaced by the Christian saints. St. Nicholas, whose memorial day falls on December the 19th, came to replace the nasty Karachun. Catholics and Protestants called him Santa Clause.
Unlike Karachun, Saint Nicholas was a very kind man. From his youth he devoted himself to religion and eventually became a Bishop. In his spare from preaching time Nicholas did good deeds. And he tried to do so secretly to avoid signs of gratitude for his generosity.
According to one legend, once Nicholas learned about three beautiful sisters whose father was too poor to give them a dowry. Then the father couldn’t think of anything better, than to sell daughters in a brothel. Saint Nicholas came to the rescue. Through the chimney, he threw into the house of the poor girls three purses full of gold, which fell right into the stockings, hanged to dry at the stove. In memory of the good deeds of St.Nicholas, it was customary in Europe to give each other gifts. However, it was not done on the New year, but on the saint’s birthday – the 19th of December.
Later, during the Reformation era, the tradition was slightly changed – gifts were given at Christmas in memory of the gifts brought by the Magi to the baby Jesus. Santa became a symbol of Christmas even later – in 1823, after the poem “The Night before Christmas”, written by Clement Clark Moore, became popular. The poem describes a family that is waiting for Christmas watching a team of deer carrying Santa Claus with a bag of gifts for children.
Russian Grandfather Frost found himself under the fir tree much later still. In pre-revolutionary Russia, Christmas was celebrated without him. The Russian children still associated Grandfather Frost with the cruel spirit of winter, so rare attempts to invite the Grandfather to the holiday in accordance with the Western tradition ended unsuccessfully – the children simply sobbed or fled in fear. It went well only in the 30s of the XX century, when the tales of Karachun were thoroughly forgotten. It was then that Grandfather Frost got a Snow Maiden, who softened the image of the harsh old man and acted as a mediator between him and the kids.
Daughter or granddaughter?
The answer to the question, who is Snow Maiden to Grandfather Frost, is not so unambiguous. Today’s children believe that she is his granddaughter. However, their great-grandparents had a different opinion.
The fact is that the image of the Snow Maiden became loved by children and adults after Alexander Ostrovsky’s play of the same name was published. In this work, the Snow Maiden was Grandfather Frost’s daughter, while her mother was The Beautiful Spring.
In Soviet times, the Snow Maiden turned from a teenage girl into a little girl and became the granddaughter of Grandfather Frost. Over the years, she grew up and again turned into a maiden, as in Ostrovsky’s play, but the family ties with Grandfather Frost remained unchanged.
However, whoever the Snow Maiden is to Grandfather Frost, she was his invariable companion on all the Soviet New Year Tree parties. The exception was made only for a couple of years in the early 60-ies after the flight of Yuri Gagarin into space. Then Grandfather Frost was accompanied at the festivities by a cosmonaut, rather than the Snow Maiden.
By the way
The 1th of January was once an ordinary working day. Only in 1947 did the first day of the year become officially declared as a holiday and a day off by the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.