DOWNTOWN — Christmas may be over, but for Russians living in and around Chicago, Santa returns Saturday.
For the past three years, Russian-American families have been gathering in front of The Bean, 201 E. Randolph St., in Millennium Park dressed as Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost), the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus, and Snegurochka, Ded Moroz’s granddaughter, to sing songs and dance.
The Chicago event, which kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday, was inspired by a similar tradition in New York City called the “Invasion of Deds Moroz and Snegurachkas,” a Russian-American take on New Years-themed flash mobs and processions that take place throughout Russia.
The Chicago “invasion” is organized by Anna Troshina of suburban Grayslake, who enjoyed the New York event and wanted to bring something like that home. It’s a way for Russians to celebrate the holidays and stay connected to their culture, and onlookers tend to enjoy it as well.
The celebration stems from a complicated relationship with the holiday season in Russia. In 1929, the Soviet government officially banned Christmas as part of a broader campaign to root out religious traditions. But in 1935, Soviet citizens were encouraged to celebrate the purely secular New Years Eve.
Many of the less-overtly religious Russian Christmas traditions — Ded Moroz delivering presents, putting up a fir tree, singing and dancing, kids dressing up in costumes — became part of the the New Year celebrations.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians started celebrating Christmas again (on January 7, since the Russian Orthodox Church never switched to the Gregorian calendar). But, by that point, New Years traditions became so ingrained that Christmas became a purely religious holiday.
Ded Moroz fills a similar cultural niche as Santa Claus, but there are a few differences. As the name (“Grandfather Frost” in Russian) suggests, he has power over snow and frost and is usually depicted carrying a magical staff as a symbol of that power. He traditionally wears a fur coat instead of Santa-style jacket and pants, and that coat may be blue or red.
While Santa sticks with reindeer, Ded Moroz is accompanied by his granddaughter and helper Snegurachka, a snow-themed folk character typically clad in a blue fur coat and either a blue fur hat or some form of the traditional Russian royal headdress.
Troshina is no stranger to organizing Russian-themed cultural events. For the past four years, she organized a Chicago-area “Immortal Regiment” gatherings, where Russians and immigrants from some other ex-Soviet countries honor World War II veterans family members who died.
For the Ded Moroz gathering, Troshina turned to the New York-based Russian Youth in America association for guidance.
“They have a lot a lot of events, they are ahead of [the Chicago area Russian-American community] in everything,” Troshina said in Russian. “And we try to follow their lead. I liked the idea, and I wanted to bring it to Chicago.”
She got in touch with the association and the group sent over costumes to help. Only a few people showed up in 2017, Troshina said, but, in 2018, around 15 people participated. This year, she expects around 20. The participants largely come from the northern suburbs including Round Lake Beach and Palatine, and two suburbs with large Russian-American communities, Wheeling and Buffalo Grove.
“One person even comes form Wisconsin, for a third year in the row,” Troshina said.
Troshina said she tries to get the word out to the Russian-American community, and some people show up just to watch. When asked whether anyone brings kids, Troshina said that the cold weather the last two times made families hesitate to do that, but she hopes it might be different this year as temperatures continue to be well above average for this time of year.
Overall, she said, the gathering is an opportunity to celebrate and bring some New Years cheer to Chicago — even non-Russians who stop and watch.
“They sometimes ask, and, sometimes, they just smile. We say that we’re Russian New Year characters, and we want to wish everybody a Happy New Year,” she said. “[Last year], we were cold, but we were happy.”