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My Night with Santa by Nina Familiant | music: Eleanor Bone by Alexander MacSween

In the former Soviet Union, Santa Claus made house calls. Not sneaky ones in the middle of the night but official visits authorized by the unanimously elected New Year Planning Committee. Each holiday season, the Committee would vest Santa with full powers to entertain little Soviet children in their state-owned homes. Besides Santa’s entertainment decree, the rest of the holiday was pretty much like everywhere else: trees, lights, treats, gifts, drinks, and so on. Oh, one more thing. The holiday guy wasn’t called Santa. There could be nothing saint-like about a state holiday in the Soviet Union as we had a different religion, you know, communism. Instead, we had Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, a big old man of obscure origin who wore a bulky fur-trimmed red-and-white coat, a hat, and a waist-length beard. By his side, there was always Snegurochka, or Snow Maiden, who was his granddaughter. What happened to Snow Maiden’s parents? The Russian history is silent on that matter. No one knows how the girl managed to come into this world skipping a generation!

But those two – the senior citizen in old-fashioned clothes and the teenage girl in his custody – seemed to rule over the USSR during the last week of every year. They were everywhere: workplace holiday gatherings, children’s parties, schools, shopping malls, movie theaters, and lit holiday streets. Thousands of bearded clones of Ded Moroz invaded every small and big town in the country. They scurried all over residential districts greeting each other with a wave of the giant red mitten. A proportional number of Snegurochkas in light blue coats followed their grandfathers, making sure every kid got his New Year gift: a crisp plastic bag stuffed with chocolates, cookies, waffles, an orange, and a toy. All gifts were the same; beautifully standardized like nearly everything in the USSR, including festivities.

This is how it worked with the New Year: every kid’s parents were employed by some state-owned company. Every state-owned company had a union. Every union had some “public” funds assigned to be spent exclusively on the entertainment for the builders of communism and their families. Thanks to such thought-out arrangements, every child of a union member was entitled to receive one free holiday visit from a Ded Moroz, a Soviet Santa, or a Red Frosty if you wish.

All Frosties were recruited from a company’s employees; employees who would be willing to work overtime for a holiday bonus added to their state-regulated wages. Why not? It was a piece-of-holiday-cake job. Each Frosty would be given a company car and a driver who would take him around the city to spend a few magic moments with the company’s families according to a schedule.

Each Frosty’s seasonal job usually lasted for several days so that no kid would be left behind without a packaged gift, a grandfatherly hug, and an all-time favorite song, In the Forest a Little Fir-tree was Born, sung, along with the kid’s parents, in a circle dance around the New Year tree. Every night during the last week of the year, the first few families on the holiday sign-up sheet were given exact times of their Ded Moroz visit. Times for the families down the list were approximate, something like after eight. This was very inconvenient because kids had to be kept awake for the entire evening. However, parents displayed no lack of understanding as to why their appointed Frosty might be running late. First, he might have been held up in the previous home by a curious young talker who wanted to know everything about Ded Moroz’s life. Second, there was traffic, wintry weather, and streets poorly cleaned from snow due to the deficit of the municipal funds. And lastly, there was vodka, the most significant of the reasons. 

Vodka never came into the picture until Ded Moroz was done with the holiday procedure. First, there were routine questions about obeying parents, reading books, and brushing teeth before bed. Then, it would be the kid’s turn to “earn the gift” by doing something nice for Ded Moroz. Usually, it would be a poem the child would recite by heart in a tiny trembling voice after having practiced it since July.

The Fir-tree song and a circle dance around the New Year tree would come next. Finally, Ded Moroz would open his huge red-fabric sack: “Here’s your gift, my little friend! Be good! See you next year!” As soon as the child would get down to unwrapping the package, the parents would escort Frosty to the kitchen, typically explaining to their son or daughter that “Ded Moroz travelled a long way and still has many kids to visit. But he’s very tired and needs some rest.” Luckily, a standard apartment in the USSR had a kitchen with a door so the child would never know how it was that his parents were taking care of the Ded Moroz’s fatigue. 

It was also a measure of precaution. I had heard stories about one New Year visit when a kid’s father was too anxious to toast the holiday with the fairytale visitor. The kid almost fainted when he saw Ded Moroz pull down his white beard and send a shot of vodka down his throat. The incident left the child traumatized until middle school. By the way, not drinking was not an option for a number of ethic and cultural reasons: you disrespect the occasion, you undermine the tradition, you offend the host, and you ruin your luck for the next year. Food was offered too, but there was never time for it as Ded Moroz needed to hurry to his next appointment.

After a few magic moments spent with each kid’s parents in the kitchen, Ded Moroz would wobble back to the company car with a sober and for this reason jealous driver inside. With each visit Ded Moroz’s wobbling would increase as did the role of Snegurochka. A mere shadow of Ded Moroz at the beginning of the evening, she would become the master of the situation by the end. She would thank the parents, wave goodbye to the kid, make sure Ded Moroz didn’t leave his red sack behind, would help him down the stairs, and would tell the driver the address of their next visit. Thanks to Snegurochka, each holiday shift would usually end without any work-related hazards. Besides, the New Year Planning Committee always did its best to schedule a reasonable number of visits per night so that each Ded Moroz could still remember his home address after the last kitchen celebration.

As a typical Soviet child, I also had a Ded Moroz every holiday season since the age when I could stand on my own. I spent the first years of my life religiously believing in Ded Moroz’s miraculous existence. Then, there were a couple of years of doubt when I would still accept a gift but no longer stare at Ded Moroz in awe. By the age of eight I was hit with a hardcore realization that miracles do not happen. My parents actually liked that: they no longer had to mark their calendars and make sure they were the first ones to sign up for a Ded Moroz visit. Now they could buy me whatever New Year gift they could find (there was a deficit of everything in the USSR!) and didn’t have to make up lies about a receipt I found once in a gift box. As my childhood beliefs were gone, I could not imagine I would ever interact with Ded Moroz again…. at least not until I was in high school.

Back then, my mom worked for a giant scientific institute, which was fabulously subsidized by the government. The fabulous state subsidy translated into the generous entertainment package for all employees and their families, which included a corporate party at a restaurant, end-of-the-year bonuses, a holiday concert at the institute’s conference hall and, of course, the Ded Moroz and Snegurochka extravaganza for the youngest. The problem with the last entertainment lay in the fact that most of the institute employees were men. (In the days of the USSR, it was quite common to believe that men were better cut out for smart work just like women were better at cooking and knitting). The prevailing male staff meant an acute deficit of potential snow maidens, which would jeopardize the overall success of holiday activities. There were some women at the institute, of course, but most of them, including younger females, were already married and had their hands full with kids, work, house chores, and holiday shopping. Besides, most of them gained weight after childbirth and no longer fit into the one-size polyester Snegurochka costumes the institute bought in a large quantity from a factory outlet.

For all these reasons, the New Year Planning Committee had to outsource from its former recipients– young daughters of the institute’s employees, who, like me, grew up and stopped believing in miracles. Being recruited as a Snegurochka was supposed to be a great experience for any high school junior: you do something nice for the community, you get to ride in a company car, you’re likely to receive a free gift and maybe even a bonus, you meet new people, you celebrate the New Year for the whole week and you aren’t stuck in your room dealing with mood swings and all crap of the pubertal age. The last point was exclusively my mom’s.

“So, would you like to be a snow maiden?” Mom asked.

“Hell no!” I answered quickly getting ready to defend my pathetic freedom of a 15-year old,”

“What am I, a clown?

“Of course, you ain’t a clown! This is just what people think you are if you don’t have a boyfriend,” my friend Svetka said that next day at school after I told her about my mom’s idea.

Boyfriend…Right. That was the word missing in my adolescent vocabulary since there was no concept to apply it to. Communist Party Gracious! The Soviet Union Almighty! How I wanted to have a boyfriend! A geeky girl with a long record of best grades in every subject, a huge list of extracurricular activities (also generously subsidized by the government!) and the impeccable reputation of a Komsomol* member, I didn’t have a boyfriend. This fact made my whole life totally meaningless despite all the meaningfulness and providential significance of being born in the Soviet Union.

Surprisingly, Svetka didn’t have a boyfriend either. For a totally different reason though. If I had no one to choose from, she had too many choices and just couldn’t decide who was better to date: Igor, Andrey or Maks.

“Let’s do that. We’ll have fun, we’ll get gifts and we’ll meet men. Real adult men, not little boys.

We’ll be the best snow maidens ever!” Svetka said with gleaming eyes. I could easily imagine her as a snow maiden. She was born to be one! At the moment of her conception, Svetka’s parents probably knew that they were creating a beauty that one day would bring holiday spirit to dozens of Soviet homes. Svetka was blonde, blue-eyed, long-legged, and busty. A real matryoshka doll who seemed to have jumped off the display shelf in a souvenir shop. I was an abject opposite: dark hair, ferret eyes, and flat everywhere. But I did agree to be a snow maiden hoping that Svetka’s beauty would shine upon me and beckon some guy in my direction too.

My mom was overjoyed. She communicated our decision to the New Year Planning Committee and got back to us with the date and time of our first holiday raid. A short training along with the distribution of costumes and Frosties was scheduled shortly before we would take off to deliver joy and happiness according to the schedule.

On the first night of the holiday visits, Svetka and I showed up at my mom’s institute five minutes after the scheduled time. Actually, we were ready to be there three hours earlier but didn’t want to seem too anxious to meet our New Year guys (real adult men, not little boys!). Instead, we met an old lady in a long skirt and a worn-out cardigan, both of unidentifiable color (a retired Snegurochka, I bet). Tamara Borisovna, as the lady introduced herself, took us to a small storage area and said she would conduct the training for the girls while Viktor Andreevich, the head of the New Year Planning Committee, would conduct a separate training for the guys (our guys!). The training was super short and super easy, just for the two of us. (There should have been three Ded Moroz-and-Snegurochka tandems that night but the third Snegurochka was running late.)

Svetka and I sang the Fir-tree song twice, reviewed the standard visit routine (questions-poem-song-gifts) and practiced a few themed riddles all of which had the same answer – Ded Moroz. Then the trainer brought in our costumes – two pieces of sparkly polyester and faux fur haute couture likely made at the local clothes factory of the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. The costumes were supposed to be put over our regular winter coats but I took my coat off because of Svetka who “didn’t want to look fat.” 

The costume now on, Svetka unbraided her hair. A golden mountain river flowed down her shoulders. I never saw her like that (loose locks were not allowed in Soviet schools, so every girl’s hair had to be neatly plaited, bunned up or ponytailed). She looked so fairy that the most incredulous kid would have his doubts dispelled about the existence of Snegurochka. I had nothing to unbraid. My hair was short for practical reasons: we lived far from my prestigious French Immersion School and I had to take two city buses in order to get there on time. “No time for braids!” was Mom’s verdict. A sweep of the comb, a splash of water in the face, a bite to eat – that was pretty much all for my morning routine before I would rush down the street to the bus stop. But now, a small and glittery Cossack-type hat that was part of the costume would hide my shameful lack of gorgeous locks.

Finally, we followed Tamara Borisovna back to the main lobby. By then, Svetka’s and my anticipation had reached the critical point. The distribution of the newly trained Frosties took place in full accordance with folk wisdom: An ugly Ivan never gets a pretty hat. While Svetka’s Ded Moroz was a tall and sexy dissertator and a recipient of international fellowship, mine was a dorky lab assistant with a classic package of dorky attributes like glasses, bad haircut, crooked teeth, and permanent congestion. A freakin’ dream. I think Tamara Borisovna introduced him as Grisha. Or Gregory. I didn’t bother to figure it out.

The third Ded Moroz and Snegurochka were obviously still en route. We decided to wait for them outside while Tamara Borisovna and Viktor Andreevich rushed to different offices to make phone calls. As soon as I walked out of the building, I felt now the merciless Russian cold began to penetrate every cell of my body. The darn polyester costume didn’t make me warm even a tiny bit. Now I wanted to look fat rather than dead! Unlike me, Svetka didn’t seem to be cold at all. She was already flirting with her new fairytale guy and they both laughed loudly at his jokes. My Frosty kept silent and only kicked his boot against a frozen entrance step. Finally, he decided to say something. He cleared his throat and muttered in a dull voice:

“Well, winter is winter….”

“Oh, wow! That’s so deep!” I thought, “The dork is also a philosopher!” I was about to explode with sarcasm. At that moment I hated everything in the world: this guy, my looks, Svetka, the New Year, Russian winter, the idiotic tradition of Ded Moroz visits, and every single family on the holiday list. I was just hoping this entire miserable experience would end soon.

“Hey, guys!”  Viktor Andreevich finally ran out of the building waving a sheet of paper,

“Change of schedule!  Kuznetsovs fell sick. You gotta take their families, sorry. It’s in the same Zone 1. Here’s a new list.”

“Oh, great.” I thought, “Those darn Kuznetsovs! Was it too hard to stay healthy at least for the last week of the year?!” As I found out later, the Kuznetzovs were the newly married junior researchers. Like most couples at the beginning of their family life, they hadn’t grown tired of each other yet and were inseparable at every event. When he was appointed a Ded Moroz, she, of course, volunteered to be his Snegurochka. When he came down with the flu, she naturally contracted it right away for some stupid spousal solidarity. This meant that I would have to spend a longer evening with some dorky guy whose impression of me wasn’t probably much different. With the Kuznetsovs’ families divided and added to our lists, we and our Frosties ended up with twelve families each. Twelve families also meant twelve shots of vodka…

According to the holiday map, Zone 1 was a new residential area in the Sovetskiy district of the city. It took us about forty minutes to get there in the snowy evening weather. We were already running late for our first visit.

As we approached the designated area, we saw blocks and blocks of identical concrete nine-floor high risers on both sides of the street: six entrances in each building, six one- or two bedroom apartments on each floor, and three people in each typical Soviet family – mom, dad, and a kid. (Having two was an act of valor; three meant a pending canonization by some Church of Communism.) Every single window was lit – it was the Ded Moroz time everywhere in the Soviet Union.

The driver pulled over to the icy sidewalk.

“Can’t go any further, guys. No drive-thru. Beat the hoof now. I’ll wait for you here.”

Svetka and her Frosty had the even house numbers on the right; ours were the odd numbers on the left.

“Time to shine and glitter!” Shouted Svetka’s Frosty and she laughed like mad, making his ego skyrocket.

Time was pressing. We parted with Svetka and her witty guy and ran through a vast playground jumping over giant piles of snow. Despite the cold weather some kids were still playing outside. 

“Ded Moroz is a caca,” I heard a three-year old say behind our backs as we rushed by without giving him a candy. There was no time to stop.

“Sorry, sweetie,” I thought, “but it wasn’t your dad’s union that paid for this Ded Moroz. Hopefully, yours will arrive next!”

The first visit went okay. I could tell my dorky Frosty was shy but to my surprise he knew what he was doing. He asked the kid some questions, told him a few riddles and sang the Fir-tree song in a bearably pleasant voice. I felt like I didn’t even have to do anything besides being a part of the holiday entourage. Actually, there was one responsibility. I didn’t realized how heavily short-sighted my Frosty was until he took off his glasses seconds before we walked into the first apartment. That did make sense though because in the USSR Frosties do not wear glasses. Why would you need an ophthalmologist if you could fix every thing with the power of your magic? (Well, almost everything except crooked teeth and congestion.) With whitish eyelashes and no glasses, my Frosty looked like a new-born blind rabbit squinting helplessly at the brightly lit ceiling lamp in the apartment’s hallway. With barely noticeable pulls and nudges I directed him to the family living room instead of the closet where he headed first.

The next visit went even better. A shot of vodka offered to Frosty in the first house did him good: his pale cheeks began to blush; his eyes gleamed behind his thick glasses, and he finally smiled. His shyness vanished as if by magic (well, by the magic of alcohol). In the next home he already showed some acting talent brought to the light by the second shot of vodka and strengthened by the third and the fourth. It became my favorite part of the visit when my Frosty would unexpectedly double over and say in a raspy voice: “Okh-okh-okh, I’m getting old! My back hurts so much. I can’t stand on my old feet!” The kid looked startled trying to guess whether it was a trick or Ded Moroz would indeed fall down and die. After a short pause, Frosty would give the kid a wink and say: “Let me ask my granddaughter to open this huge sack of presents. If I give one present to you, maybe my sack will get lighter and my back will feel better!”  The kid would then scream with delight and clap. (I wish Frosty had acted just a little bit when we were killing time by the institute’s main entrance!)

Before each visit, when we were standing in front of the apartment door ready to ring the doorbell, Frosty would pull a crumpled sheet with our clients’ names out of a pocket in his faux fur coat.

“Okay, who’s next? Mikhail Volkov, Age 4.”

A second later, Frosty would drone in an intimidating voice “Does the good boy Misha Volkov live here?” and pound on the door.

“Mom, he knows me!” We would hear the shocked kid’s shriek.

“Of course, I know you!” Frosty yelled even louder, “The entire enchanted forest does!”

“Mo-o-o-om! Did you hear that?!” Misha Volkov was ready to bet his life on the existence of Ded Moroz. It was easy to feel like a hero with the most sincere and gullible audience in the world who would gratefully give in to deception – kids. We rocked! Our holiday work went without a hitch. First family – check; second family – check; third family – check, then came the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth…

After the seventh family and the seventh shot of vodka, my Frosty began to lose it.

By my junior year I had already attended a few adult birthday parties of my parents’ co-workers and knew that drunken people act differently. To this day, I still think that the most accurate assessment of the human race is the one based on people’s response to vodka, as no other substance better reveals hidden secrets of human nature.

There are nice drunks who love the whole world and want to embrace it including furniture.

There are unhappy drunks who instantaneously recall all their life failures and begin to cry in the middle of the party.

There are wild drunks who have the urge to dance on the table or throw empty bottles off the apartment balcony.

There are boring drunks who fall asleep on the floor and just lie there occupying the party space.

But Frosty was the fifth type; the worst one. He got talkative, obnoxious, and overconfident.

“So, they are having fun, aren’t they? Have you seen that? Have you?” Frosty spoke loudly as he almost slid down the stairs. “My boss said – Grisha, you gotta be a Ded Moroz! Boss said – Grisha did. Right?”

“Right!” I backed him up immediately as I knew that was the only way to deal with the drunken Type 5. 

“Of course! Grisha this, Grisha that. If it’s not me then who else?” He wobbled out of the building and nearly slipped on the icy porch. I tried to hold him by the arm.

“I’m fine!” Grisha the Frosty pushed my arm away and almost hit me in the face. “D’you think I can’t walk? Why? Because of three lousy shots of vodka?!” (He had seven.) “I can drink two bottles of vodka and still be fine. D’you think I’m drunk? Do you?”

“No, you are not.” I didn’t deliberate a second over my answer.

“Yeah, because I know how to drink. And the guys in my lab don’t. They can’t do anything, those stupid PhDs with their stupid dissertations. They don’t understand a thing in real science because they are nothing without their machines. And who gets their machines ready? Who?!”

“Of course, you!” Once again I hit the bull’s eye with my answer.  

“Exactly, it’s me, Grisha. I’m the god of the fucking lab and if I ever…”

At this point in the monologue on his indispensability, Grisha fell into the snow pile in front of our next building. The sack of presents landed in the snow pile next to Grisha’s. (“Taffies might survive but waffles won’t!” flashed in my mind.)

This time he allowed me to help him get up. The plunge in the snow sobered him a little bit and we managed to survive two more visits during which the “lab god” walked into the closet and stumbled over a neat stack of presents by the New Year tree. Despite my pinches, he enthusiastically accepted vodka shots in both homes, which noticeably increased the frequency of his snow dives between the visits. It was beyond my understanding how a skinny guy like Frosty could be so heavy: each time I pulled him out of the snow, I felt as if my guts were tearing from strain.

At another dive, he got his pockets full of snow, which melted as soon as we walked into a warm building and smudged all the names on the holiday list.

“Don’t worry my dear, I know them all lil’ suckers.” Frosty crumpled the sheet into a spitball and dropped it on the floor. Then he grabbed the door handle with one hand to gain some support. With the other hand, he managed to hit the doorbell on the first try. 

“Hello, Peter! How are you, Peter? Have you been an obedient boy this year, Peter?” Frosty lumbered in the apartment and loudly addressed the child’s coat on a rack, “I bet you are ready for some good presents, aren’t you, Peter?”

“Ye…yes-s,” Lisped the embarrassed kid behind Frosty’s back. His name was Vlad.

For the rest of the tenth visit and during the eleventh, I had to play it solo. I did that quite well thanks to Tamara Borisovna’s training. I asked questions, told a few riddles and sang the Fir-tree song together with the child, while my Frosty stood in the middle of the room, blinking with his red rabbit eyes and clapping his hands whenever he felt like it. (I had to hand it to him for having remarkable balance and for not landing on the floor in front of the kid.) This time we managed to leave without a drink as Grisha looked like a character in a Soviet anti-vodka propaganda poster.

“Grisha, please, just one more apartment and we’ll call it a night,” I begged him as I dragged him along the snowy street to the last building on our holiday map. 

“Everyth-th-th-thing will be ju-u-u-ust gre-e-eat,” Frosty barely moved his tongue, “We’ll be th-the-e-e-re on time!” I hardly believed his promise as he tried to beat the world record on how many times a human being can fall down within a three-minute walk. My strained muscles hurt everywhere and my wrists froze from the snow I got into my sleeves and gloves after rescuing Grisha from another snow pile.

Finally, we crawled into the building. As it often happened during holiday season, the elevator was out of order. As ill luck would have it, our last family lived on the fifth floor. We made it to the third when Grisha plopped down on the floor like a giant red sack of presents and leaned against the radiator. There was no force in this universe that could make him get up. I stood helplessly in front of him, feeling neither angry nor upset, just terribly tired.

Suddenly, he looked at me with his red eyes and said: “You are the prettiest girl I’ve ever met!” Then he hiccupped and passed out. His red fur-trimmed hat rolled off onto his knees. His right cheek was glowing red from the radiator heat and drops of either sweat or melted snow dripped off the tip of his nose onto his tangled polyester beard.

So, there he was, on the dirty cement floor, drunk, sweaty, and totally mine. I kissed him on the lips. The Frosty muttered some mooing sound and smiled in his sleep. I sat down by his side and moved his head onto my shoulder. It felt pretty darn good (and warm) to have a man snuggled against me. I heard doors bang, people laugh, music play. “In the forest a little fir-tree was born-la-la-la,” a few discordant drunken voices were singing somewhere in the upper floors. Warmth filled up my entire body and I dozed off for a few minutes. In my short dream I was blond, blue-eyed, long-legged and busty…

Eventually, Svetka and her fairytale boyfriend came over with an empty red sack. The future Doctor of Science dragged my Frosty down the stairs and carried him over the shoulder to the car. As we drove home, my Frosty smiled in his sleep. I believed I knew why.

That night I went to bed happy. As I was lying under my comfy camel-wool blanket, I realized that miracles do happen. Well, maybe not for some little Boris whose mom filed a complaint with the New Year Committee the next morning: her son fell asleep on the doormat waiting for Ded Moroz who never made it to their apartment…

* Soviet Youth Organization

ninaNina Familiant grew up in Siberia. Now she lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that reminds her of her native Novosibirsk. She received her PhD in Slavic Languages and Literature from UW-Madison. Currently, she teaches one of the most fascinating subjects – Russian language – at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She and her husband are raising their two kids bilingual so that the young ones are capable of reading what Nina writes in both English and Russian. A few years ago she co-authored a children’s book Siberia John and the Mystery of the Amazing Zoo, which became a finalist for the Midwest Book Award.

alexAlexander MacSween is a Montreal-based composer, musician and sound artists. He has drummed in some of that city’s best loved rock bands, including Bionic, The Nils, and Blinker The Star. He’s also been active in the experimental and improvised music scenes, playing with the likes of Paolo Angeli, Frank Gratkowski, Sam Shalabi, and Martin Tétreault. He currently plays electronic drums and keyboards in the electro-indie pop duo La Dauphine and performs solo as MACHEEN, playing drum machines and effects pedals. In 2015 he released The Squiggle Game, an album of experimental instrumental on &records. Alexander creates multi-channel sound installations for resonant spaces and also composes music for dance and theatre artists, notably Marie Brassard, Robert Lepage and José Navas. Across all fields, Alexander’s music is characterised by the blending of familiar and unfamiliar sounds, his particular way of combining of electronic and acoustic instruments, and by his frequent use of sampled voices.