NYT - Santa treads on Grandfather Frost's toes


December 24, 1999

MOSCOW, Dec. 23 -- Santa Claus is coming to town. And is Ded Moroz ever annoyed about it.

Mr. Moroz -- in English, Grandfather Frost -- is the beloved embodiment of the Russian holiday season, an ancient gent decked out in a fur-trimmed suit and a white beard who rides around in a sleigh and brings presents to all good children. Walk around downtown Moscow these days, especially near the big toy emporium, Detsky Mir, and you are likely to see him roaming the streets. This is, after all, his turf.

It was, anyway, until Santa Claus began muscling in on the action. Now, whatever the spin about a kindly old elf with a fat belly, the message to Ded Moroz is unmistakable: You better watch out.

However likely it is to spot Mr. Moroz tramping through the snow, missing his Western rival has become all but impossible, thanks mostly to the power of multinational marketing. Every corner grocery has at least one huge poster of Santa Claus hawking Coca-Cola; his image is plastered in stores selling consumer goods from clothes to jewelry.

Moscow's thousands of street vendors sell Santa Claus trinkets. A giant inflatable Santa hangs atop a collection on shops on upscale Petrovka Street. Even Detsky Mir, which employs its own live Ded Moroz, sells Santa Claus ornaments and Santa Claus dolls.

"Sometimes, in big cities like Moscow, he has become even more important than Ded Moroz," said Mariya Volkenshtein, general director of the Russian market research firm Validata. "You can see it in the shops, in the things you can buy, in the drawings."

Whether even a place as big as Russia is big enough for two bearded, gift-dispensing icons is an open question, for despite the surface similarities, the two men are really nothing alike.

For starters, Ded Moroz (pronounced dead morose, to English speakers' amusement) is a closet Stalinist and an atheist. Before the Communist revolution in 1917, Russians celebrated Christmas -- albeit in early January, as specified in the Julian calendar -- and St. Nicholas was the Christmas spirit of choice.

Stalin ordered the traditional gift-giving shifted to New Year's Day and rehabilitated St. Nick as Ded Moroz. Thinner, more imperious and less given to ho-ho-ho's, Ded Moroz wears an ankle-length robe, carries a scepter and rides in a troika pulled by three horses rather than reindeer.

Seeing as the horses do not fly, Ded Moroz delivers presents by knocking on the door rather than plunging down chimneys. He is accompanied by Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, a pigtailed fairy who must be called out from hiding by children.

The collapse of Communism swept away many Soviet traditions, but Ded, Snegurochka and the notion of gift-giving on New Year's have stuck fast. Thus the return of religion and St. Nicholas, in the form of Santa, have created a dizzying state of holiday confusion.

According to a 1998 survey by Moscow's Public Opinion Foundation, 13 percent of Russian families observe a Western-style Christmas on Dec. 25. The remainder exchange gifts on Jan. 1, and observe a Russian Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7.

Everyone takes off from work and parties until Jan. 14, the New Year according to the Julian calendar -- or, as Russians call it, Old New Year.

For a nation that already observes two New Years and two independence days (Soviet and Russian), two Christmases and two Santas may not seem much of a leap.

But as with all things Western these days, Russians seem decidedly ambivalent about Santa Claus.

Merchants tend to love him, and if they sell Western goods, they have little choice. Ordinary workers have adapted to Christmas Western-style by starting their annual New Year's break on Dec. 25 instead of Jan. 1, bringing the nation to a halt for three weeks instead of two.

Politicians, riding a wave of Russian patriotism, increasingly view Santa Claus as an interloper and a cultural imperialist. They are led by Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who has vowed to make Ded Moroz a symbol of Russia's cultural heritage.

Last December, Mr. Luzhkov paraded Ded Moroz around town in a troika and held a reception for the old fellow.

"Look at our huge, beautiful Ded," he boasted then. "You can't compare him to that puny Santa Claus!"

Maybe not. But this year, Mayor Luzhkov has chosen to compete with Santa on his own terms: he has arranged a marketing deal for Ded Moroz.

By agreement with the governor of a northern region, the mayor has proclaimed that Grandfather Frost's legendary home is in a remote forest town, Veliky Ustyug, 500 miles northeast of the capital. Hoping to build tourism, officials there will open Ded Moroz's palace this week.

On Sunday, Mr. Luzhkov will open a sprawling winter home for Ded Moroz on the site of a vast souvenir flea market in northern Moscow. There Grandfather Frost will greet children, preach the spirit of giving and sell Ded Moroz knickknacks.

In Veliky Ustyug, a joint stock company, OAO Ded Moroz, has trademarked Grandfather Frost's name, and companies there are busily producing Ded Moroz wooden souvenirs, Ded Moroz postcards, Ded Moroz candy and Ded Moroz vodka.

Putting Grandfather Frost's mug on a bottle of vodka is something at which even jolly old capitalist Santa might blanch. But there is an explanation: "Every adult, in his heart, is nonetheless a child," a tourism specialist from Veliky Ustyug's regional government says.


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