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

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