Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Father Frost, Russia’s Counterpart to Santa Claus, Varies Widely by Region and Nationality

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 24 – As the peoples of Eurasia enter into the holiday season, it is worth remembering that Father Frost, a figure that many Russians see as uniting their country however divided it may be, in fact varies widely not only among the region’s many nations but also and perhaps more surprisingly among regions within them.

            “It is not a secret for anyone,” Vesti.ru reports, “that Father Frost looks and is called differently by different peoples. More than that, even in Russia, various regions each have their own Father Frost,” one whose basic function may be the same but whose name and features often are very different (travel.vesti.ru/article_10240).

            “For example,” the Russian travel site continues, Shoo-Babay brings toys to Tatar and Bashkir children on New Year’s eve. In Tuva, Father Frost is called Sook-Irey; in Sakha the Father Frost equivalent is Chyskhaan, in Yamalo-Nenets, he is Yamal-Pri, and in Karelia, Pakkaine, each of which has his own dress, features and traditions.

            On the one hand, many of these figures pre-date the spread of Russian culture into these regions. But on the other, they have certainly been strengthened rather than undermined by assimilating to a Russian tradition that even the Soviets promoted in opposition to more overtly Christian symbols.

            But at the same time, Russia’s Father Frost has faced increasingly stiff competition from the Western Santa Claus. Indeed, Travel.vesti.ru says, the “expansion” of the latter “into our ne year’s market is so great that often the native fatherland Father Frost even looks the same as his English-language colleague.”

            That has prompted “in recent times” an active struggle to defend and promote “the purity of the image of our winter father,”  the site says, including the promotion of an official “residence” of Father Frost in Veliky Ustyug and this year the inclusion of Father Frost in the Olympiad in Sochi.

            But if Santa Claus is viewed by some Russian officials as alien, two Father Frost-equivalents from Finland and Estonia are near to the heart of many Russians.  Finland’s Joulupukki and Estonia’s Jouluvana are much in demand among Russians at this time of year, and Russians have taken part in special ceremonies involving both.

            The Russian travel site notes that one special feature of Jouluvana is that he is “a real polyglot” who “speaks beautifully not only Estonian, but Russian, English and Finnish.”  

            But whatever name Father Frost bears “be it the Belarusian Zyuya, the Ukrainian Did Moroz, the Armenian Dzmer-papi, the Serbian Deda Mraz, the Kazakh Ayaz-Ata or the Mongol Uvlin-Uvgun – and the Russian site not surprisingly tries to present all these figures as manifestations of an ur-Russian one – he is invariably “a kind and positive person.”

            Beyond question, the site concludes, that is because such figures “are always connected with a holiday, with the beginning of something new, with hopes for change, with the love of near ones and the joy of the first night of the coming year!”

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