hidden europe 5

Visiting Father Frost in Russia

by Nicky Gardner


In search of Santa Claus' Russian comrade, hidden europe visits Veliky Ustyug in northern Russia.

Our faith in Santa Claus never wavered until we went to Miskolc in Hungary a couple of years ago. During occasional December visits to England, we had noticed Santa Special flights advertised from even quite minor regional airports. All the way to Rovaniemi in northern Finland and back in a day! Just enough time to confirm that the old man with white beard and red suit really exists, have a chat with the elves, feed the reindeer, and still be home by midnight. But a chance encounter in Miskolc in early December 2003 sowed the seeds of doubt.

Santa Claus was posing for photographs against the fading Baroque façades of a Hungarian industrial town at the very time of year when he should have been up in northern Finland busying himself in preparation for the upcoming peak season. But what was really troubling was that Santa Claus' appearance in Miskolc was evidently of far less consequence than the furore occasioned by the presence of a seeming rival to the short sighted old man from Lapland. For Father Frost and his Snow Maiden were in town, and when these two Russian celebrities eventually came face to face with Santa Claus outside Miskolc's crumbling Jewish orthodox synagogue, it was evident that, in terms of crowd appeal, the Russian duo won hands down.

Courtesies were exchanged between the old man in red with a sack, who had evidently left his reindeer in the local car park, and the glamorous impostors from the Russian North. Father Frost and the Snow Maiden, who was wearing too much make-up, introduced themselves by their Russian names, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. They showed pictures of ice bound rivers and wooden houses draped in winter snow. Santa Claus tried to rustle up a few images of elves, but frankly it wasn't enough to distract the children of Miskolc who had been seduced by Father Frost. All the while, the Snow Maiden deftly worked her mascara magic to retain the attention of the men in the crowd. Our own faith in Santa Claus a little dented, hidden europe headed north on the trail of Ded Moroz and Snegurochka.

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