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Moscow is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Western-style

December 23, 1997

MOSCOW (AP) _ Santa Claus has come to town.

A newcomer in Russia, where most people celebrate Christ’s birth in January and give gifts at New Year’s, the plump old man in the red coat is suddenly everywhere in Moscow. And he’s tough competition for Grandfather Frost, who Russian children believe brings New Year’s presents.

Dec. 25, known as Catholic Christmas in this mostly Orthodox country, is becoming a kind of semi-holiday in Moscow, where religious celebrations were banned during seven decades of Soviet rule.

These days, Moscow is decked in glittering imported decorations, Christmas concerts and fairs abound, and Russian television is broadcasting American Christmas movies and other special programs.

Some people say it matters little that imported Santas look different from the Russian fairy tale version, who carries a staff and wears a round hat and long robe. His robe can be red, but often is blue and white.

``For children it’s only important that he has a beard and brings presents,″ said Olga Alexandrova, who peddles Christmas cards with pictures of Santa.

Others disagree. A man dressed as Grandfather Frost for a job in the GUM department store on Red Square shook his head in disgust at the plastic Santa decorations.

``It’s easier to buy a Santa Claus than to create a Grandfather Frost,″ he said. ``It’s the force of the West.″

Russians see Grandfather Frost as more romantic and say Santa looks like a ``gnome,″ said Stanislav Kovalyov of the firm Nika, which provides costumed characters of both for stores around the city.

Instead of elves and reindeer, Grandfather Frost goes around with Snegurochka, a Snow Maiden with long, blond braids.

Kovalyov said Santa looks poorly dressed in his red suit. ``In our cold winter you need a long, functional coat,″ he said. ``In sub-zero temperatures you don’t go out in such a short jacket.″

Some stores, though, especially those that sell imported products, want a costumed Santa Claus, not a Grandfather Frost, to draw customers, Kovalyov said.

Many shops have Santa decorations, largely because they were provided free by suppliers of Western goods. And shops selling imported Santa Claus tree ornaments, candles and chocolates have been doing a brisk trade.

Anton Boulanov of the Media Arts Advertising Agency said most Russians do not worry about the influx of Santas.

``In the past three to four years a lot of Western traditions have come to Russia,″ he said. ``More people celebrate Catholic Christmas now _ it’s one more reason to drink.″

The National Hotel is advertising a $75 Christmas dinner.

``Russians, Muscovites, are happy to celebrate a holiday in any case,″ said Valery Afanasev, in charge of restaurant sales in the luxury hotel across from the Kremlin. ``For us it is simply a lovely holiday.″

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