Reveling in Russian Santa's Fairytale Home

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In a dreamlike pinewood in Northern Russia, tourists find the home of Ded Moroz, or Santa Claus, both ancient and kitsch.

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Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, lives more than 600 miles northeast of Moscow, among pine forests on a cliff above the Sukhona River. Twelve years ago, Moscow's recently replaced mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, declared the small but idyllic woodland town of Veliky Ustyug the official home of Russia's Santa Claus. More recently, it has become a vital source of commerce and tourism for the region.

The estate attracted 3,000 tourists the year it opened. Now there are more than 200,000 visitors annually, and the estate employs almost every adult living in Veliky Ustyug. The recent closure of a local bio fuels factory has made this alternative source of employment even more urgent.

The local authorities have attempted to harness the history of what was a monastic and then a merchant town to lend depth to Ded Moroz's relatively recent arrival. "We might be small, but we are great indeed," said the head of Veliky Ustyug's regional administration, Nikolai Ilyushin, referring proudly to the epithet "Veliky," meaning "great."

The Ded Moroz estate, known as the "Votchina," is nestled in a scenic pinewood. The centerpiece is the wooden Terem, the mansion where Ded Moroz is said to live. The satin covered bed, with its carved headrest and fluffy slippers, is not hugely convincing, but Ded Moroz himself, nearly seven feet tall with a booming voice and bone-crushing handshake, is quite an overwhelming presence. To help preserve the mystique, the true identity of the huge actor who plays Ded Moroz is a closely guarded trade secret.

The Russian Ded Moroz has a more ancient sensibility than the commercially branded Western Santa. While his coat is often red and he sports the same long white beard, he is more stern than jolly and his robes are embroidered and vary with the seasons, since this is a year-round attraction. Indeed, Ded Moroz has an extensive wardrobe including midnight velvet, spangled silver, pale blue silk for the summer, Vologda linen and felt boots called Valenki.

Children and adults can make their own souvenirs in Ded Moroz's workshop. These include birch bark ornaments, delicately imprinted with patterns, traditional rag dolls and lace. Lace making is one of the regional specialties.

Santa's Post Office nearby is one of the most active parts of the whole operation. The post office has received nearly two million letters. Lyudmila Suranova, one of the post office's 11 full-time workers, explained that in the peak season they employ 40 extra staff members to help with the onslaught of mail. Some of the letters come from children who are having problems; Suranova said that the post office tries to help where it can. 

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One family wrote to ask Ded Moroz for a cow for Christmas, and they received one. There are increasing numbers of letters from abroad, but they do not always get answers. Suranova said: "Sadly, Ded Moroz's helpers don't speak all the languages of the world, although we can manage English, French and maybe German."

Between November and the New Year, Ded Moroz takes off on a tour of duty around Russia, which culminates in his lighting Moscow's main Christmas tree. Moscow has its own, much smaller, Ded Moroz estate. But there is something about Veliky Ustyug that has managed to capture the ancient spirit of Christmas, albeit infused with a large dose of modern-day kitsch. 
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