A Russian birthday celebration for Santa Claus

Posted: Friday, December 21, 2007

When was Santa Claus born? A question few if any Americans can answer.

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In Russia, Father Frost, the old man of the north who brings cold weather and holiday cheer to the children of the country has an official birth date. It was decided upon three years ago.

Nov. 18 is the big day and the place of celebration is Velikii Ustug, the official home of Father Frost. The town is 20 hours north east by train from Moscow, and has a rich historical connection with Alaska.

Among the first fur traders to penetrate the Aleutian Islands were men from Velikii Ustug, and Mikhail Buldakov, the chief director of the Russian American Co. during the tenure of Alexander Baranov, was from the town and maintained a summer palace there.

Having received an invitation from Vladimir Latyntsev, a close friend and talented oil painter who has visited Alaska each of the last three summers, I recently traveled from Moscow to Velikii Ustug to join in the birthday celebration.

Four hundred school children were also shipped north by train from Moscow all expenses paid by the city government, to congratulate the old man at his official residence in a thick forest five miles outside the city.

They were not alone. Eight traditional holiday figures came from across Russia to pay their respects. The most impressive was Chiis Khan, from Yakutsk.

He was dressed in a brilliant blue robe with white flowing beard, and had two faux mammoth tusks sprouting out of his head, in homage to the fact that the Yakut consider themselves originally descended from the mammoth.

A heavy snow had fallen and the weather was below zero as the procession of mythical figures and children made their way down the main street of Velikii Ustug, marching past an old statue of Vladimir Lenin to the main concert stage.

A street fair atmosphere reigned with wrestling matches in inflatable sumo costumes between children and volleyball matches, log wrestling and foot races for those older.

Traditional dance groups entertained the crowd and after Father Frost had received his official congratulation, the evening was capped with a laser light show and fireworks.

Perhaps, one day a Santa Claus from North Pole will travel to Velikii Ustug to celebrate the day with his Russian counterpart.

To summarize the excitement of the holiday, there is the old Russian proverb, "Zemni holod, vsyakii molod", which translates, "In the winter cold, nobody feels old".

Such was certainly the case this past Nov. 18 in the far north of Russia.

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