Folklore Thursday Guest Blog: Snegurochka The Snow Maiden

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by the primary religious (and in some case, institutional) influences.

This Folklore Thursday, Lidia Plaza leads the discussion on the Eastern Orthodox Christian folk tradition of Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, and illustrates her interpretation of the mythic figure through the contemporary folk tradition of Cosplay.

Snegurochka: the Snow Maiden

Lidia Plaza

For many people, Christmas is essentially over, but for most Eastern Orthodox Christians, Christmas has not yet begun.  Due to the quirky differences between the Julian Calendar (followed by the Eastern Orthodox tradition), and the Gregorian Calendar (followed by the majority of other Christian traditions), when we in the West are finishing celebrating Epiphany (if we do celebrate it), those in the East will be preparing for Christmas on January 7.

While Christmas in the West means Jelly-Bellied Santa, Red-Nosed Rudolph, and, more recently, an obnoxiously-situated Elf on the Shelf, for Eastern European countries Christmas means the tall, staff-carrying figure of Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost or Father Frost), and his beautiful, pale granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden).  Yet just as Rudolph and Elf on the Shelf are more recent additions, Snegurochka was not always a part of the Christmas tradition.

A figure in blue robes trimmed in white fur stands on a snowy field holding his ice scepter, the depiction of Slavic "Father Christmas" Ded Moroz
The tall and imposing winter wizard, Ded Moroz, of Slavic tradition.

Origins of Snegurochka

It’s not entirely clear when or where Snegurochka originated.  Some believe she has roots in Slavic pagan beliefs, while others argue that she came from folktales outside of the Slavic world.

A model poses in a snowscape as Snegurochka, the Russian Snow Maiden. Her headdress is beautifully trimmed in pearls and beads, and her hair is snowy white.
Photograph of a depiction of Snegurockha. Photograph by Viona Ielegems.

In any case, Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev first published the story of Snegurochka in the mid 19th century as part of his multi-volume collection of Russian folktales. In Afanasyev’s version, Snegurochka comes to life from a little snow doll made by two childless peasants, Ivan and Marya.  One day, some girls invite her to walk in the woods, and when it gets cold, the girls make a fire.  As part of a game, they take turns jumping over the fire, but when it is Snegurochka’s turn, she evaporates in a small cloud.

Three girls look on in dismay and surprise as Snegurochka evaporates into a vapor as she joins their game of jumping over the fire. Image is an oil painting.
Some girls invite Snegurochka to play a game by jumping over the fire, but Snegurochka evaporates. This version first appeared in Afanasyev’s Nineteenth-Century folklore compilation.

In other versions, she is the daughter of the gods Father Frost and Mother Spring, but she lives with an elderly, childless couple.  She grows attached to a young man, but finds she is incapable of love.  In an act of pity, Mother Spring gives her the ability to love, but when she does, the warmth of her heart causes her to melt.

Snow Maidens of the World

Of course, Snegurochka is not the only snow child in the tales and myths of the world.  The Germans have the Schneekind (Snow Child), a boy who melts, although in earlier accounts, the boy’s origin and fate are not so enchanted.  In one version, a man returns to his wife after a two-year absence, and his unfaithful wife explains her newborn son by saying she became pregnant when swallowing a snowflake while thinking of her husband.  The husband raises the boy until he is old enough to be sold as a slave, and explains the boy’s absence by saying the child melted in the heat.

An actress recreates Yuki-Onna in the in a very loose gesture of the Kabuki style of Japanese theater.
Though not an accurate representation of Yuki-Onna or Kabuki theater, here is a depiction of the snow spirit that steals the breath from sleeping travelers and leaves only blue corpses.

The Japanese snow maiden, Yuki Onna, is a much more supernatural character who lulls unfortunate souls to a deep, permanent sleep and uses her icy breath to leave only a frost-covered corpse behind.  However, not all spirits of the snow are so malicious. While not a child, the snow-person most of us are familiar with today is, of course, Frosty the Snowman.

Snegurochka and the Persistence of Folk Traditions

Yet while these snow-characters are understandably associated with winter, the association with Christmas is less obvious.  In the case of Snegurochka, it was ironically the spirit of Soviet anti-Christmas that sealed her fate as a Christmas character.  In the nineteenth century, just as the character of Santa Claus was becoming wrapped up with Christmas in Western Europe, Ded Moroz became synonymous with Christmas in Eastern Europe, thanks in part to the popularization of Snegurochka.  In 1873, Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s play “The Snow Maiden” was performed at the Moscow Imperial Theater with music written by Tchaikovsky.  Five years later, the folktale became a ballet thanks to composer Ludwig Minkus’ “The Daughter of the Snows.”  Finally, the story became an opera in Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1881, “The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale.”  By the turn of the twentieth century, Snegurochka figurines could be found adorning fir trees and every children’s New Year’s pageant had a Snegurochka.

All of these traditions, as well as many others, were ended during the Soviet anti-religious campaign.  Yet, just as the French had discovered in one of their own revolutions, it wasn’t so simple to just abolish religion or secular traditions.  As a kind of compromise, New Years celebrations were allowed starting in 1935, along with the Yolka (New Year’s tree), Ded Moroz, and Snegurochka.  New Years Eve remains the winter holiday for many living in post-Soviet countries, though now the holiday season has been re-injected with traditional Christmas themes and iconography.  Modern Snegurochka and Ded Moroz (who, through various adaptations of the story, became her grandfather) live in Veliky Ustyug, but during the New Year’s celebration they deliver gifts to good children.

Dead Moroz and Snegurochka stand on a blue-lit stage dressed in winter blue finery. Presentation is by the Moscow Theater.
Father Frost, Ded Moroz, and his Granddaughter, Snegurochka, live on stage at the Moscow Theater. Ded Moroz rose to fame following the popularization of the folk tradition of Snegurochka.

Christmas Traditions in Post-Soviet Ukraine

After the fall of the USSR, post-Soviet peoples had to figure out how to revive the old Christmas traditions in a time when most people had grown up without them.  In 1993, my family and I lived in Lviv, Ukraine and I got to witness part of this transformation firsthand.  I was very young at the time and my memories are few and far between, but some things I will never forget.  First and foremost, I was delighted to discover all the new opportunities to receive presents; there was Western Christmas (December 25), New Years Eve (December 31), and Eastern Christmas (January 7).  I will also always remember the first group of carolers that came to our door.  Unlike the rag-tag gang of off-tune singers I’ve been a part of here in America, Ukrainian Christmas caroling is more of an elaborate folk performance, and a cherished part of the Christmas tradition.

A group of Christmas carolers in Ukraine are dressed in traditional Christmas costumes as they demonstrate the majestic pagentry of Eastern Blok Christmas traditions.
These Ukrainian Christmas Carolers make the Fencing Club’s attempts at caroling look paltry and sad, and one year we even had two flutists.

Of course, none of that had been allowed for decades, and as the small group crowded our doorway of our tiny, Soviet-style flat, my three-year-old self couldn’t help but notice a tiny, weathered lady in the far corner.  She had leathery wrinkled skin, wet with tears that streamed down her face as she sang songs she probably hadn’t sung since she was my age.

However, what I remember best about Ukraine was the New Year/Christmas pageant put on by my preschool.  I was cast in the role of “The Spirit of the New Year,” at least according to my family’s limited understanding of Ukrainian.  I had to recite a short poem (which I still remember) and I wore a silver dress with a snowflake crown, very much like modern depictions of Snegurochka.

A little girl in a white dress and headdress, backed by six more little ones on a small school stage in Lviv, Ukraine.
A three-year-old Lidia Plaza performs as The Spirit of the New Year in her Ukrainian preschool’s New Year Play in Liviv, Ukraine.

“my three-year-old self couldn’t help but notice a tiny, weathered lady in the far corner.  She had leathery wrinkled skin, wet with tears that streamed down her face as she sang songs she probably hadn’t sung since she was my age. “

 

Snegurockha in South Texas

While Santa almost always wears red, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka often wear silver and blue, some say in a Soviet effort to distance the characters from Christmas.  Inspired by an old picture of me in my outfit, I decided to spend some time this Christmas season doing a Snegurochka-type look.

Lidia Plaza stands in her living room after finishing her makeup and costume for Snegurochka. She wears a red blouse, a white wig, and a red beaded headdress.
Lidia Plaza designed the headdress and makeup herself, drawing on both the Eastern Blok depictions and utilizing colors most closely associated with Western Christmas.

The blouse I found at a thrift store many years ago, but the crown I made myself.   It was a bit of a rushed job as the holidays are not exactly a season of free time, but it was a lot of fun and I hope you enjoy it.

About the Guest Blog

Lidia Plaza graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a double major in History and Anthropology. She was the winner of the 2013 Bram Stoker Undergraduate Award in Historical Studies for her thesis on the rise in theft of textiles in Eighteenth-Century England. She is currently seeking positions in grad school where she hopes to bring her unique expertise and eye for detail to the field of artifact conservation. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, Jeremy, and their two dogs, Squirt and Dottie.

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