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Traditions old and new: From Father Frost to Father Christmas

Author: Petar Kostadinov Date: Mon, Dec 26 2005 2757 Views
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"DOWN with Father Frost, Signed Father Christmas". That was a popular joke that could be seen written on the walls of Sofia during the first years of democracy in Bulgaria.  The replacement of Father Frost with Father Christmas represented the transition that the country had started from communism to democracy and was more proof that politics interferes everywhere, even with the Christmas spirit.


Before looking into the issue of who Father Frost was, and who Father Christmas is now, we must go back a little in history. As a Christian country, Bulgaria has always had the tradition of celebrating Christmas, which together with Easter have become the two most celebrated religious holidays in the country. Before 1944, when the communist regime was established in Bulgaria, Christmas was celebrated in every Bulgarian household as something sacred and mysterious. Folklore and tradition were interwoven. Bulgarians, however, did not have the image of a white-bearded old man in a red suit. Gifts were received, but in a different kind of way. At midnight on December 24, the day called also known as Badni vecher, a group of young unmarried men called "Koledari" would start a tour around the houses in the village - where they received a warm welcome. The Koledari sang Christmas songs and wished happiness and fruitfulness to the head of the family in each house. In return they received gifts. And that was what gift giving in Bulgaria consisted of.


The situation changed after 1944. The new communist Government followed the example of the now former USSR and introduced the celebrating of New Year's Eve as the main holiday at the end of the year. This was part of communist efforts to belittle the Orthodox Church and its rituals; religion according to Lenin was an "opiate of the masses". However, New Year's Eve as the new major holiday needed a symbol so that it could be viewed by the people as something important and exiting. That symbol was the Russian Father Frost, Ded Maroz in Russian. He was the answer to the western Santa Claus who, thanks to the advertising campaign by Coca-Cola launched in 1931, took on the image that we all know today.


Bulgaria was quick to accept Father Frost and all generations that were born under communism celebrated him until 1989. Christmas as a religious holiday lost most of its importance and traditions and continued to be celebrated only partially by people who kept their love for the church. The celebration of Christmas was also a way to oppose communism.


As something new for Bulgarians, Father Frost had to be attractive to children. That is why he took some of the fairytale imagery of Santa Claus: the red coat, white beard, the sledge, the sack, and Snow-White and the seven dwarves, who in Bulgaria are his helpers, performing the same role as the elves in other parts of the world. The "presents' request procedure" was also pretty much the same. At the end of the year, every child had to write a letter to Father Frost in which the child had to name their desired present. The letters were written in kindergarten and then "sent" to Father Frost. As the children found out several years later, the letters were given to their parents who "with the help" of Father Frost managed to deliver the presents.  The moment for receiving the gifts was on New Year's Eve. Most often Father Frost "left" the presents in front of the door of the apartment, and rang the bell, mysteriously disappearing, before any child saw him. The only condition that the child had to observe in order to receive a present was to be good during the whole year. Children also had the opportunity to receive their gifts personally from Father Frost. In ceremonies organised in schools or kindergartens, Father Frost met the children. Every child received a present on the condition that he or she performed a song or a poem for the white-bearded man. Sometimes he was accompanied by Snow White who was in charge of the presents.


In this way Father Frost became a dearly loved and adored character among Bulgarian children. Almost no one could see in him the idea of opposing Christmas. Unfortunately, Christmas Eve lost its place in the hearts of most Bulgarians and remained just a memory that was recounted by the older people. But things changed dramatically in 1989 and the years after that. When democracy was established in Bulgaria, the common mood was to oppose and deny everything that had any connection with the old communist regime. Together with the red star that was removed from the roof of Parliament, Father Frost was also replaced. He was replaced by Father Christmas as a way to rediscover the lost traditions of Christmas. New Year's Eve remained a holiday, but became a more formal one. Christmas on the other hand quickly restored its image as a family holiday. In the first years, most Bulgarians had to learn how to celebrate Christmas in the traditional way characteristic of the Orthodox Church. Father Christmas still looked like Father Frost, the difference being that Father Christmas started giving his presents on Christmas Eve, or the day after that. Another difference was that the presents were no longer left outside the door, but under the Christmas tree. The replacement of Father Frost with Father Christmas, however, caused some confusion about when exactly children should receive their presents. People used to Father Frost continued to give presents on New Year's Eve, and at Christmas as well. The confusion led to a situation in which some children received presents twice, instead of once. Father Christmas quickly gained popularity, and soon Father Frost was remembered only as something that came from the communist era. However, when compared, the two characters look amazingly similar. Their common goal is to bring joy and happiness to the children, who do not care who was imposed by whom and with what purpose. Whether he is Father Frost for those born during communism, or Father Christmas for those who oppose it, the only thing that matters is that the red-coated gentleman continues to give his presents to children and spread joy in Bulgaria.

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