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9th December, Babushka

December 9, 2011
by Paul Bommer

Babushka is a traditional figure in Russian folklore who distributes presents to children around Christmas-time. Her name literally means “Grandmother” (which makes you wonder what Kate Bush was singing about!) The legend is she declined to go with the Wise Men, when they stopped at her house for food and rest en route to Bethlehem, to see the baby Jesus – because of the cold weather, and because she had housework and baking to do.

However, after the Magi left, she regretted not going and set off to catch up, filling her basket with presents and pastries. She never did catch up or find the baby Jesus, and it is said she wonders the earth ’til this day, visiting each house at Christmas and leaving toys and treats for good children. The morals of this story? Don’t put off ’til to-morrow what you can do today and a clean house, it’s not all that important!

I have an old book entitled North Russian Architecture, with a slip-case, a faux wood cover and hundreds of photographs of log-cabins and shingled, onion-domed shrines and chapels. They provided my reference for the buildings behind her.

Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer

2 Responses leave one →
  1. andrea permalink
    December 9, 2011

    Another moral could be: keep your place clean because you never know who might drop by!

  2. December 21, 2011

    Andrea, good advice!
    I grew up with this story, as did many of my generation, but it seems the story is unknown in Russia. Unusual that, and one that even eight decades (or so) of Communist censorship would explain convincingly. So I have looked deeper, and here the story takes an odd twist.
    It transpires that the tale is not Russian at all, but the Italian tradition of La Buffana, an old hag or witch who, like Babushka in this story, misses the chance to see the infant Christ child and so spends all eternity making amends. The story was translated into Russian at the end of the 19th Century, as part of an anthology of Christmas tales. This self same publication was then picked up by an English lady a few decades later who took the tale to be Russian and translated it into English.
    So next year I , like Babushka/ Buffana, shall make amends and depict the original kind-hearted Italian strega!

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