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

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week