Father Frost and the Snow Maiden deliver Russia's winter warmer

MOSCOW DAYS

You think it is cold in western Europe at the moment? Try coming to Russia. In Moscow, the temperature has dropped to -30C - the temperature at which cars seize up, street flower-sellers protect their roses in glass cabinets heated by candles and Russian parents bundle up their children not only in hats and scarves but also in face masks.

The frost has not, however, deterred the crowds from joining the new year shopping rush. Yesterday, Novoslobodskaya market was heaving with people in heavy overcoats and fur hats, struggling to buy tinned salmon and mayonnaise for the festive meal, and "yolkas" - fir trees - for the festive mood.

Russian New Year is a curious mixture of domestic traditions and practices adopted from abroad. The atheist Communists stressed it in preference to Christmas and, although the Orthodox Church now has full freedom, New Year remains more popular than Russian Christmas on 6-7 January.

Although Russia is covered with fir trees, the tradition of putting presents under the tree was actually imported from Germany. The Orthodox Church initially disapproved of this foul foreign influence but the Communists put a red star on top of the tree and made it Russia's own.

The presents are delivered by Father Frost, the Russian Santa Claus. Instead of a red-nosed reindeer, he relies on a female helper called Snegurochka or the Snow Maiden. Her main job is to restrain Father Frost from drinking too much vodka on his rounds, although often the Snow Maiden has to be carried home too.

Those who refuse to believe in Father Frost and the Snow Maiden know that Mum and Dad really got the presents, after fighting to get to the counter at Detsky Mir (Children's World), the big toy shop which glitters incongruously next to the forbidding Lubyanka, secret police headquarters. Detsky Mir used to sell cheap Soviet-made toys such as wooden tanks, which foreign tourists adored and Russian children hated. Now the shop is full of imported radio-controlled jeeps and Barbie dolls, paradise for kids but a nightmare for all but the richest parents.

Russians live in flats so there is no nonsense about Father Frost coming down the chimney. The presents miraculously appear under the tree in the evening of 31 December, when families gather to drink out the old year with vodka. Just before midnight, President Boris Yeltsin appears on television with a short, benevolent speech. Then, after the Kremlin bells have sounded, the new year is drunk in with champagne.

In millions of Russian homes this festive season, children and adults will be opening their presents to find they have received just what they always wanted - a little furry bull. For 1997 is the Year of the Bull, according to the Chinese calendar, which Russians have also incorporated into their celebration.

Peking does not object to the theft of its tradition as most of the toy bulls on sale in Moscow have been imported from China.

Superstitious Russians believe that the nature of the year's animal determines the fate of humans for the next 12 months: 1996 was the Year of the Rat, an anarchic creature, and indeed in the last 12 months Russia has got into a mess, with unpaid taxes, wages and pensions, as politicians were first busy with the presidential elections and then the winner Mr Yeltsin fell ill and needed heart surgery.

By contrast, the bull is a beast that loves order, and politicians are promising that 1997 will be the year that Russia sorts itself out.

Helen Womack

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

Escape from Everest base camp

Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell