The warmth of Frost

Russians are fun-loving folk always keen to adopt foreign customs, especially if there's a party involved. Hallowe'en, St Patrick's Day and Valentine's Day weren't celebrated in Russia under the tsars or the Soviets, but they became holidays 15 years ago. Russians adore parties, any excuse to let their hair down, and will happily celebrate almost anything if the event's festive, has a tradition and whisks them away from the grind of daily routine.

New celebrations have become even more popular than the long-established ones, especially among young people. Valentine's Day is more popular throughout Russia than March 8, International Women's Day, which was introduced in Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. But the link with the revolution didn't last long and it was soon recognised solely as a day of celebrating women. Or take St Patrick's Day, with its green-coloured fancy dress parades along the snowy Moscow streets to lilting bagpipe music and a river of beer. Many lining the streets are not even aware of the holiday's Irish roots. Russians regard May Day as the advent of spring rather than its originally intended celebration of proletarian solidarity.

New Year's Eve is the only holiday celebrated for what it is. Christmas was reinstated after Russia cast off the Communist ideology, which banned the holy holiday along with everything to do with religion. In the 1920s and '30s, the Bolsheviks were determined to scrap New Year celebrations, too, but the people's staunch resistance proved stronger. So New Year's Eve joined the list of official holidays.

As for Grandpa Frost, he grew out of the Slavonic pagan mythology as the God of Winter under the names of Studenets, Moroz or Morozko, all meaning "frost" in Russian. This fierce deity turned into ice anyone who did not worship and make sacrifices to him.

Grandpa Frost's image mellowed slightly at the start of the 18th century, when Peter the Great switched New Year celebrations from September 1 to January 1, to coincide with the Western European calendar. That was when Grandpa Frost no longer demanded sacrifices but brought gifts instead. He did keep some of his harshness, however, always appearing with a huge magical staff, which he was thought to punish naughty boys and girls with, while delivering gifts to the well-behaved.

The past three centuries have seen a great improvement in his personality. Now, Grandpa Frost is a good-natured, warm-hearted old gentleman, who has given up corporal punishment and gives gifts to all children and adults, irrespective of their behaviour. Tradition has it that he lives in Veliky Ustyug, a small town in the north of European Russia, founded in the 12th century, the same time as Moscow.

It used to be a formidable fortress, but Ustyug lost its strategic importance in the mid-16th century, while its geographic position made it an increasingly affluent commercial centre, where folk arts and crafts also prospered. In the 16th century Ustyug was rich enough for Ivan the Terrible to enter it on the list of cities financing the royal court. That was when it was designated as Veliky (Great).

Today, it has a population of 35,400 and is surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in Russia.

The Sukhona embankment catches the sightseer's eye initially, with its churches, proud bell towers and cosy private houses.

Grandpa Frost could not have found a better place to settle down. His lives in a luscious pine forest 15km out of town and early every December sets off to deliver his Christmas gifts and start the winter celebrations.

Read more about Veliky Ustyug

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