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The Russian Tongue: Making merry with Father Frost

So the season of gluttony and excess is upon us once again. But before we can descend into a chocolate-fueled stupor in front of a pile of gifts, there are many holiday events to attend.

So the season of gluttony and excess is upon us once again.

But before we can descend into a chocolate-fueled stupor in front of a pile of gifts, there are many holiday events to attend. Whether at a company party (корпоративная вечеринка, or корпоратив) or with your kids at a holiday show, you’re likely to run into Дед Мороз and Снегурочка.

These characters, usually translated as Father Frost and the Snow Maiden, started out in folk tales and were transformed into jolly purveyors of gifts in the modern era.

Дед Мороз, for one, wasn’t always such a positive figure – he started out as the personification of winter weather, as his name suggests, and he is represented in many tales (including more recent interpretations, such as Ostrovsky’s play Снегурочка), as powerful and cruel. In this context he might be better translated as Old Man Winter. 

Until recently, he was said to live at the North Pole (Северный полюс). But in 1999, at the suggestion of Moscow’s longtime mayor, Yury Luzhkov, the town Veliky Ustyug in the Vologda region declared itself the official home of Father Frost.

I’m not quite clear why Luzhkov had any influence in the matter, but the town is only about 19 hours by train from Moscow, so get your tickets today.

Снегурочка was also literally made out of winter weather, unsurprisingly, given that her name is an affectionate diminutive form of снег – snow. In the folk tale, two lonely older people (дед и баба) decide to make a little snow girl: Давай-ка вылепим дочку Снегурочку.

The verb лепить can be used to describe any shaping or sculpting motion. A regular snowman is снеговик/ снежная баба. Notice the change in the masculine word in this sentence: Дети лепили снеговика.

It is an inanimate object actually declined like an animate one in the accusative case like, for example, мальчик, presumably because it represents a person.

At any rate, the old couple is delighted when their snow child comes to life, but, shockingly for a Russian story, things turn out badly. Some girls convince Снегурочка to go outside in the sun, and then jump over a bonfire (прыгать через костёр), and she melts from the heat: Растаяла Снегурочка.

On a side note, what’s with all the Russian stories involving lonely older people creating children out of inappropriate materials? In the folk tale about колобок, a round piece of bread comes to life and runs off from the older couple who made it, only to get eaten by a fox.

One of the other main signs of the season is the appearance of Christmas trees everywhere, although here they are more likely New Year’s trees (новогодние ёлки). To describe decorating your Christmas/New Year’s tree, you can use the verb украшать: Мы украсили ёлку гирляндами и игрушками. (We decorated the tree with lights and ornaments.) The tinsel that people drape on trees is called дождь or дождик (literally rain). Those with less space and time may prefer an artificial tree (искусственная ёлка) to the real thing.

The word ёлка can refer to either the fir tree itself, or a holiday show put on for children.

There has been a fair amount of news coverage lately about scalpers buying up all the tickets to these shows and basically trying to steal Christmas. Спекулянты активно торгуют билетами на главные ёлки города – в Кремле, храме Христа Спасителя и в мэрии, хотя официально пригласительные на такие мероприятия распространяются бесплатно. (Scalpers are doing a brisk trade in tickets to the city’s main New Year shows at the Kremlin, the Christ the Savior Cathedral, and City Hall, even though invitations to these events are officially free of charge.)

The aggravated parents dealing with this problem might find themselves uttering a mild curse/exclamation using the word ёлка – ёлки-палки – which everybody also knows as the Russian restaurant chain. Literally, this expression means: firs and sticks! But it’s a fairly common way to express surprise or irritation; I would suggest maybe “What the…?” for the former and the old standby “damn” for the latter. Or you can burst out with the even more season-appropriate: Ёлки зелёные!


The Russian Tongue: The big freeze

The Russian Tongue: Talking Tolstoy

The Russian Tongue: Let me hear your body talk

The Russian Tongue: There is nothing like a dame

The Russian Tongue: Babes and babushkas


Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of, where they appear every two weeks.

Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.

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