ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

Orthodox Santas: From Agios Vasilis to Grandfather Frost

Posted by United Language Group on January 6, 2016

It’s the eve of Orthodox Christmas: let us embrace our holiday spirit for a little while longer. In Orthodox countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia or Russia, the Christmas celebration is held approximately two weeks after the rest of the Christian world. The Orthodox branch never adapted its routines from the Julian to Gregorian calendar, and keeps the ancient calendar introduced by Julius Caesar.

But what about the magical jolly old man who brings presents and transports gifts?

From the North Pole to Greece: Santa’s Other Home

In the United States, legend has it that Santa Claus travels all the way from the North Pole to deliver gifts. In Europe, he is most commonly considered to be a resident of Lapland, a region of Finland. But does he travel all the way to Orthodox Greece and Cyprus to deliver presents on Christmas?

In these countries, Santa Claus, or rather Agios Vasilis, is welcomed on New Year’s Eve instead of the Christmas Eve. Christmas in Greece is now commonly celebrated on the December date; however, the day of the christening of Jesus Christ, on January 6th is considered a substantially more important holiday.  According to Greek tradition, the old saint does not cross the whole continent on the reindeer-drawn sleigh. More realistically, he travels from nearby Caesaria in Asia Minor.

All expectations to see an elderly jolly man would be shattered to pieces at the image of Agios Vasilis on local icons in the vast majority of churches – as a tall, thin man with a black beard. A similar tradition is alive in Cyprus. The typical treat for Agios Vasilis, Vasilopita, is baked in many Greek and Cypriot families on New Year’s Eve. It is commonly known as “St. Basil’s (Vasilis’) Bread.” A coin or a little figurine is hidden inside the bread to commemorate all the good deeds of Agios Vasilis and honor his acts of charity.

Christmas Traditions in the Balkans

A little more to the North, in Serbia and Montenegro, orthodox people also prefer to exchange gifts on the New Year’s Eve, dedicating Christmas Day (January 7th) to religious routines only. Like all other countries affected by communist ideology in the post-WWII era, Santa Claus was “cancelled” here and replaced with Deda Mraz (Grandfather Frost), “imported” from the Soviet Union.

Before this, Saint Nicholas, just like in the majority of European cultures, was the main character of the whole gifting ceremony. The tradition of Deda Mraz remained, but the local “representative” Bozic Bata (Christmas Brother) was added as a cheerful New Year’s Eve character. Interestingly, from January 7th the so-called “twelve days of Christmas” start in Serbian and Montenegrin culture, during which the common greeting in the streets is “Christ is born. “Truly he is born,” is the traditional response.

A very similar scenario to Serbia and Montenegro took place in Bulgaria. During the communist regime, the infamous Grandfather Frost (Dyado Mraz in Bulgarian language) was adopted. After the Democratic revolution, his predecessor, Dyado Koleda (Grandfather Christmas Carol) was returned to the holiday scene.

Track Ded Moroz with His Granddaughter Across Russia

In Russia, the homeland of Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz (who has been aggressively transplanted into other post-WWII communist regimes), his tradition has remained unchanged until present times.

Ded Moroz typically makes his appearance on New Year’s Eve, accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka. The presence of the female character by his side makes Russian tradition quite unique, since it has not been a pattern in any other European culture. The “frosty” family resides in (where else but…) Russia itself, in the town of Veliky Ustyug. In contrast to the North Pole or even Lapland, it lies far outside the Arctic Circle. Since November 2009 it has also been possible to track Ded Moroz through the Global Navigation Satellite System on the New Year’s Eve. “GLONASS tracks Ded Moroz” is now a capable competitor of the well-known North American NORAD Tracks Santa system.

Are You Ready to Write a Letter to “Orthodox Santa”?

Santa Claus comes in many forms, and is known by many names. If you still want to get in on the Orthodox Christmas Spirit, give Agios Vasilis or Ded Moroz a try!

Whether your business is focused on one of the Orthodox countries, or you are considering relocation there, bear in mind that Christmas holidays are not yet over. The festivities will reach their peak on January 7th.

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Topics: Language Learner