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Merry (Western) Christmas from Siberia (where Santa is not always red!)

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24 December 2015


Best known across Russia is Grandfather Frost - or Ded Moroz - often carries a magical staff. Picture: Anna Permyakova

All of them look old, with flowing white beards, and mostly have long histories, possibly reaching back to pagan times, but each is distinct, covering their own territory. Intriguingly, most are accompanied by glamorous snow maidens.

Quite often at this time of year, some of these colourful Russian figures meet for friendly Santa summits, occasionally in a real ice cave hewn in permafrost, as our picture show. Their expressions maybe serious, and the cold daunting, but all of them aim to bring happiness and - more often than not - gifts to children who are well behaved.

Best known across Russia is Grandfather Frost - or Ded Moroz - who often carries a magical staff and is frequently accompanied by his Snow Maiden - Snegurochka - assistant. He is the one who looks most like the Father Christmas so familiar to Western children, yet there are also key differences. 

Grandfather Frost

Grandfather Frost and Snegurochka

Grandfather Frost

Grandfather Frost

Grandfather Frost dressed in red or blue is frequently accompanied by his Snow Maiden - Snegurochka. Pictures: AiF, MR7, Pikabu

For example, his busiest night is New Year's Eve with presents arriving at midnight as the clock strikes. He often visits excited children in their homes or at parties before New Year's Eve, and since the end of Soviet times, he also appears in some flats and houses to mark Orthodox Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on January  6 and 7.

Usually he is dressed in red but he is sometimes seen in blue or very occasionally white. His traditional mode of transport is a sleigh pulled not by reindeer but white horses. Over the years, he has also resorted to the Metro, trams, helicopters and Ladas in extremis. Clambering down chimneys, though, is not for him.

His appearance in blue is believed by some to be the work of Stalin, who deep in the Soviet era felt he needed the winter tradition of Santa - abandoned with the Bolshevik Revolution - but wanted to distinguish it from the bourgeois Western variant, who was unkindly branded 'an ally of the priest and the kulak'. 

Siberian Santas

Siberian Santas

Siberian Santas

Siberian Santas

Some of these colourful Russian figures meet for friendly Santa summits, occasionally in a real ice cave hewn in permafrost, as our picture show. Pictures: Planeta Yakutia, Satal Tour

Traditionally, in deep history Ded Moroz wandered around the forest, controlling the frost, bringing presents to the good, and punishments to the bad. Unlike Santa, Grandfather Frost gives his gifts openly when he arrives with a big sack of presents. Typically, children need to show him how good they are, often reciting a poem or singing a song before he hands over the gifts, assisted by Snegurochka. 

He lives not at the North Pole but in the town of Veliky Ustyug, in northern Russia, well shy of the Arctic. It is here the Russian Post Office delivers his mail, but with this being such a large country, he has regional residences, for example at Royev Ruchey Zoo in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. 

Grandfather Frost's birthday is November 18, the coldest day ever recorded in Veliky Ustyug. 

The glamorous Snogruchka was originally a character from ancient fairy tales who became part of the Christmas ritual in the late nineteenth century. She remained when Stalin permitted Grandfather Frost to return two decades after the Russian Revolution. 

Chyskhaan and Kharchaana



Magnificent blue-coated Chyskhaan, aka the King of the Cold and his Sow Maiden Khaarchana. Pictures:, Victor Li-Fu

Children in Russia's largest region, the vast Sakha Republic in Siberia, are also familiar with the magnificent blue-coated Chyskhaan, aka the King of the Cold. Every year, in late September and early October, he makes his way south from the Arctic Ocean to the diamond region of Sakha, also known Yakutia.

'And with his every step comes cold,' tells native Yakutian, Olga Stepanova. The region can sink below minus 60C.

At an annual conclave with Grandfather Frost, he hands over the cold each winter. He has two horns, by legend one from a bull, the other from a woolly mammoth. 

'Then at the end January his first horn falls off, and in middle February his second horn,' she explained. As the snow melts, he floats back to the Arctic in the Lena River before the ritual is repeated the following winter.  

Yet another Santa-like figure is also seen in this region, the coldest in Russia. This is Ekhe Dyyl, who shares a granddaughter Khaarchana with Chyskhaan. She likes to play with children but can only do so around New Year - the time when presents are exchanged. At other periods, she wears a hat that makes her invisible. The bearded Ekhe Dyyl rides a bull, and carries a sack of presents, while Khaarchana goes around on a reindeer called Buur. 

Sagaan Ubugul

Sagaan Ubugul

Sagaan Ubugul or White Elder who has a white beard, and carries a stick with a dragon's head. Pictures: The Siberian Times

Another of the Siberian 'Santa's' is Sagaan Ubugul or White Elder who is seen in the Buddhist republic of Buryatia. He has a white beard, and carries a stick with a dragon's head. 

His duties fall later than the others since the New Year is celebrated according to the lunar calendar in late January or early February. He invites children and adults to Lake Baikal - the oldest lake in the world - and the gifts he bestows are health, love, family and wealth to the deserving. To children he gives candles and sweets. 

In the southern Siberian republic of Tyva is a Santa who - like our own - is able to fly over the rooftops. There is no sleigh nor any reindeer but Sook Irey flies to houses and yurts bringing gifts to children at New Year.

Sook Irey

Sook Irey

Sook Irey from Tuva can be accompanied by Tugeni Eneken - Mother Winter from Evenkia. Pictures: Sergey Tarasenko

'His body, arms, legs consist of ice,' according to one description. 'He looks cold and tired. His hair, eyebrows, and beard covered with white frost like all the trees and bushes. His clothes are white, blue, reminiscent of the ice.'

His head wear has 'solar and lunar colours' and signs indicating his extraterrestrial origins.' Yet while he looks old and worn, he can turn into a young man or beautiful girl, as the mood takes him. 'But he can not warm anyone. He can only freeze,' according to the Tyva Legend of Creation. He can be accompanied by Tugeni Eneken - Mother Winter from Evenkia.

Kysh Babayi

Kysh Babayi from Tatarstan is often accompanied by Kar Kyzy - his Snow Maiden. Picture: Kysh Babayi residence

On the Western fringes of Siberia, in the largely Muslim regions of Tatarstan and Bashkiriya, is the preserve of the magical figure of Kysh Babayi, dressed in blue and seen by some as a brother to Ded Moroz. He is accompanied by Kar Kyzy - his Snow Maiden - but also by a veritable collection of others, notably golden haired Altynchech - a female warrior; Takhir and Zukhra, described as a Tatar Romeo and Juliet; Ubyrly Karchyk, an old and scary woman; Shurale, a spirit from the forest; Shaytan, the embodiment of evil; Azhdakha, a flying dragon; and Batyr, a strong man. Like Ded Moroz, he distributes presents as the New Year dawns.

Yamal Iri

Yamal Iri and Snegurochka

Yamal Iri and Snegurochka

Yamal Iri presents gifts to childre, spreads positive energy and brings midwinter happiness. Pictures:

While most owe their origins to old traditions, Yamal Iri - who rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer and dresses in blue - is a much newer creation. He started presiding over Christmas in the gas-rich Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous region of northern Siberia as recently as 2007. His character is, though, based on old legends and he arrives with a drum made from reindeer skin to drive away evil spirits. 

As well as presenting gifts to children, he spreads positive energy and brings midwinter happiness. He lives in the Arctic, at Gornoknyazevsk village,  some nine miles from the city of Salekhard, on the bank of the Ob River. His traditional costume and boots are made from reindeer skins and his belt decorated with bones from woolly mammoths. 

Comments (10)

Growing up in Wisconsin We Celebrated twice. Saint Nicholas who is the one who brings the Christmas season on the 6th. It involves our wooden shoes, each child and adult have a pair. Some are small, some are big and some we wear in our Reenactments. He brings each child an orange, a book, an ornament and gold chocolate coins and a small tree or branches for their bedroom. The first " feast " is a simple supper with rice pudding and one small almond. Who ever gets the almond receives a small gift- usually mint candies. We start our Christmas decorating and special meals for our Saints and our Ancestors . Christmas Eve we hang stockings and they will have small gifts, like a deck of cards, fishing lures or a box of crayons, and a tin of smoked oysters ( I have strange children). What ever paper is wrapped around the gifts in your stockings you need to look under the tree for Santa's gift to you. One year Santa left a string tied to the tree and it out the door and around trees and the house, past the garden and ended at a big box. That year he brought an ice shanty for ice fishing . That was a huge deal. While most everyone around us are taking down decorations by Christmas night (25) we continue to celebrate with the family. We have Cousins and Aunts and Uncles and we have parties and family until the Kings day Epiphany. And that is the final night of our Christmas Season. I love to read about how other people celebrate this is a beautiful thank you so much for sharing I would someday love to travel the world to see all these glorious things. Thank you again for sharing this and a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
Kim Pufahl , Mauston WI USA
27/12/2020 10:28
Bedankt voor uw prachtige uitleg. Kende Vadertje Vorst al, maar wist niet dat er verschillende zijn. Prachtige foto's.
Wieny Adelaars, Nederland
25/12/2018 18:24
great article! best to you and your people this holiday
stephen meinecke, toronto ontario canada
24/12/2018 20:00
24/01/2016 03:44
çok ilginç ve sürdürülebilen bir gelenek olması uzun yıllara bağlı olan değerlerin simgesi olsa gerek. Yasam ne kadar zor olsa bile onun yaşanır kılınması önemlidir.Her yeni yılı bir heyeceanla karşılamak çok güzel olsa gerek. O insanları kutluyorum. Uzun asırlara ulaşmalarını dilerim. İyi neoller ve bol şanslar diliyorum. İnsanlık dünyasına....
Ahmet, Türkiye
30/12/2015 16:31
Thank you so much for sharing the stories and beauty of Christmas customs in a far away land! The costumes are absolutely gorgeous and it is heartwarming to know that "good children" are rewarded, for it is not always easy to be good! Totally delightful insight......Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!
Sharry Sprague, Luray, USA
26/12/2015 20:59
I saw this in the newspaper 35 years ago or so and it was always very mysterious. wondered about it ever since and tried to do searches but not the right wording. It's hard to forget snowmaidens and at this time in my life I believe I should have some
eric leber, new orleans, louisiana. U.S.A.
25/12/2015 16:20
Wonderful clothes for wonderful custom. The main is to give dream to "les enfants sages" in the whole world.
Thanks !
Jocelyne, FRANCE
25/12/2015 16:14
Love those pictures! Wonderful, glorious, colorful and really beautiful!

Thank you Siberian Times for your Christmas greetings! I wish you and your readers the Merriest Christmas and the most Prosperous New Year!!
E. Espinosa, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
25/12/2015 15:56
i will weep, we have rain in Moscow...
Benedikt, Moscow,Russia
25/12/2015 01:37

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