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Russia's answer to Father Christmas
LONDON (CNN) -- Who has a long white beard, rides around in a sleigh and gives presents to children at Christmas time?
In most parts of the world you'll get the same answer: Santa Claus, of course. Ask the question in Russia, however, and a slightly different name might come up: Ded Moroz.
Ded Moroz (pronounced "Dead Morose") is Russian for Grandfather Frost, a legendary figure dating back to pagan times when he was thought to be responsible for bringing the icy Russian winters.
Although the traditional Santa Claus is also popular in Russia -- St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop who provided the original model for Santa, is the country's patron saint -- Ded Moroz has always occupied a special place in the nation's heart.
Stalin and the Snow Maiden
Generally portrayed as a tall bearded man in flowing robes and riding in a "troika," or horse-drawn sleigh, Ded Moroz first became associated with the custom of Christmas gift-giving in the late 19th century.
His image was banned after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 but was reinstated in the 1940s by Stalin, who employed him as a propaganda tool during World War II (cards depict him carrying a sack of presents and a rifle).
Traditionally thought to live in the wild snowy woods in the far north of Russia, he has, since 1998, been associated with the 850-year-old town of Veliky Ustyug, about 500 miles northeast of Moscow.
There he has a special winter wonderland -- built by the municipal authorities at a cost of 10 million rubles ($350,000) -- where he receives more than 15,000 visitors each year.
While Santa has his elves to help him, Ded Moroz has Snegurochka, or the Snow Maiden, a woodland fairy who assists in the delivery of presents and disappears with the advent of spring.
Despite his widespread popularity, there are signs that Grandfather Frost is, in some of Russia's big cities at least, losing ground to the big-bellied Western-style Father Christmas.
"I prefer Santa Claus," says one Russian child, Nastya. "I think he's prettier."
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