The Three Santas of Slovenia

Roman Mars:
A quick note. The following story acknowledges the existence of Santa Claus and explores his origin story. If you, or someone in the car-seat next to you, are not ready to hear that, well, you might want to save this episode for another time.

———

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Slovenia is a small country in Central Europe nestled between Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary. It’s a land of snowy white peaks, green valleys, and turquoise rivers. Beautiful in all seasons – although especially at Christmastime.

Will Aspinall:
It snowed really early on during my first winter here and it was just magical. It felt like I was walking through a Christmas card.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Will Aspinall.

Will Aspinall:
I moved here from the UK with my wife and young family back in 2018 because we were enchanted with Slovenia’s landscape and wanted a new life for the kids. And in that first year we were really curious what Christmas was going to be like in this snowglobe of a country. We love Christmas and I thought we did it pretty well back in Britain. But let’s just say what Slovenia gets up to every December kind of blew us away.

Roman Mars:
Like children in the US or the UK, Slovenian kids are visited by Santa Claus every Christmas Eve…

Will Aspinall:
They call him Boziček.

Miha:
Moj najlubši mož je Boziček.

Will Aspinall:
These are the voices of kids that I recorded at my daughter Marnie’s elementary school.

Miha:
Ker prenese. Bonboni pa igrače.

Marnie:
I like santa because he brings me sweets and presents.

Will Aspinall:
And that’s Marnie translating. But kids in Slovenia don’t have to settle for just one santa. They also have a more traditional option available. A catholic saint called Miklavž – who dishes out the gifts on the night of December the 5th.

Ema:
Moj najljubši mož je Miklavž zato ker, ker more pa vrzi dol sladki pa prenesi darile.

Marnie:
She likes Miklavž, because when you go to the show, she throws down sweets and she also brings presents.

Roman Mars:
And if you’re a kid in Slovenia thinking, “Jeez, two santas just doesn’t really feel like enough,” don’t worry, there’s yet ANOTHER option.

Will Aspinall:
He’s a festive figure who comes down from the country’s highest mountain every New Year’s Day to shower the children of Slovenia with good wishes… and yet more presents.

Vita:
Moj najljubši mož je Dedek Mraz.

Will Aspinall:
His name, if you didn’t catch it, is Dedek Mraz… Grandpa Frost.

Vita:
Veliko brada. Pa palčema.

Marnie:
He’s got a big beard and he’s got a stick.

Laura:
Dobra včasih videli dedka mraza pa zmen mi smo se v slika v vrtcu.

Marnie:
And it was good we did with Dedek Mraz, because then we took a picture with him and had a fun time.

Will Aspinall:
If you’re doing your sums, that means that this nation of just over 2 million people is visited by, not one, not two, but three different santas every festive season.

Roman Mars:
As far as I know, they have the highest santa to citizen ratio of any country in the world.

Will Aspinall:
When I found out about Slovenia’s three santas, I had so many questions. Why was one santa not enough for these people? Where on earth did they all come from, and how do they manage to co-exist?

Roman Mars:
It turns out that each Santa has had his moment in the spotlight—each in a different period of Slovenia’s complicated history.

Will Aspinall:
And TODAY, if you want a Christmas season that reflects that history and speaks to all Slovenians, you need all three magical men.

Roman Mars:
The people of Slovenia have long been protective of their customs and language. And you can understand why. For hundreds of years they were ruled by the Hapsburg Empire, one of the most powerful dynasties in Europe.

Noah Charney:
Their language superficially was German because they were part of the empire.

Will Aspinall:
That’s art historian, and self-described anglophone cheerleader of Slovenia, Noah Charney.

Noah Charney:
Anyone living at home and going about their daily activities would have spoken Slovenian, and so that preservation of the language has helped keep them a relatively homogenous, solid group, despite all of the issues that plagued Europe over the past centuries.

Will Aspinall:
The Slovenes were a distinct group of people with their own language. But they did share the same religion with almost all other subjects of the Hapsburg empire — Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholics loved their saints and around Christmastime, there was only one saint that mattered.

Roman Mars:
Enter Slovenia’s first magical Christmas man — Saint Nicholas.

Will Aspinall:
Saint Nicholas, or Sveti Miklavž in Slovene, was a bishop born in the third century CE. There are a lot of stories that surround Saint Nicholas. Some of them very gory and un-Christmassy, But the one that matters for our purposes, is about a poor old man who got so desperate he was about to sell his daughters into prostitution. St. Nicholas intervened by delivering bags of gold coins to the man’s house in the middle of the night.

Roman Mars:
St. Nick coming in with an extremely intense origin story.

Will Aspinall:
His saint day on December 6th was when Slovenian children traditionally received presents while they were sleeping – just like those bags of gold one and a half millennia ago. But the action really happened the night before during Miklavževanje, Saint Nicholas eve. In the capital, Ljubljana, there was a church sponsored parade with Miklavž at the center, dressed like a Catholic bishop with that iconic pointed hat, golden slippers, and a curling bishops’ staff.

Noah Charney:
Saint Nicholas in the Slovenian tradition is kindly, but he’s accompanied by a group of little demons called parkeljni and their role is essentially as a tool to be used by parents to frighten children into being obedient. And these parkeljni, these demons, are supposed to carry around clanking chains that they drag you off with.

Roman Mars:
That is intensely spooky for a Christmas story.

Will Aspinall:
Yeah, Miklavževanje really knocks Halloween into a cocked hat. Some of the people I spoke to were genuinely traumatized by it because in rural areas people would actually dress up as these demons and take the opportunity to torment local children.

Roman Mars:
Miklavž was Slovenia’s only Santa for generations until the 1940s, when the country traded one empire for another, and swapped Santas in the process.

[MUSIC]

Will Aspinall:
When the Austro-Hungarian empire crumbled after World War I, the Slovene people decided to join a collection of six nations who identified themselves ethnically as southern or ‘Yugo’ slavs. Yugoslavia was born.

Roman Mars:
At first Yugoslavia was a monarchy, but after World War II it became a communist country led by a charismatic strongman named Josip Broz, better known as Tito.

Will Aspinall:
Under Tito, Catholicism was suppressed. And Saint Nicholas, aka Miklavž, was banned.

Nena Zidov:
So, after World War II the new Yugoslav communist authorities wanted to banish the religious customs from public life and they wanted to replace them with a new, let’s say, Socialist holidays.

Will Aspinall:
That’s Nina Zidov, a curator at the Slovene Ethnographic museum, who has researched this period.

Nena Zidov:
And I must say that I even met one man. He was playing the role of Saint Nicholas. And then the police came and he told to me that he was in the prison for two days because of playing the role of Saint Nicholas.

Will Aspinall:
Banning dressing up as a Catholic saint was one thing. But taking away presents for children during the darkest month of the year would have been unforgivable. Tito knew that. And so he needed something, or rather someone, to take Miklavž’s place.

Roman Mars:
Exit Miklavž. Enter, our next magical Christmas-man.

Will Aspinall:
At this point Yugoslavia relied on the Soviet Union for economic assistance. And Tito decided to borrow from its culture, too. Since the 1930s, the Soviet Union had deployed a Communist Santa to hand out the gifts.

Noah Charney:
And that figure is called, in Russian, Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost. In Slovenia he’s called Dedek Mraz.

Will Aspinall:
Dedek Mraz looked like an enormous bearded man from the Russian countryside.

Noah Charney:
He would appear in factories. And if we’re being pragmatic, he was probably someone from the factory team dressed up. The children would come to the factory and then they would have this positive association with going to the factory, and the parents would feel that the factory was the one giving the gifts to their children. And it’s this good communist alternative to Catholic Saint Nicholas or capitalist Santa Claus.

Will Aspinall:
But a political crisis threatened to end Dedek Mraz before he had even had a chance to spread the holiday cheer. Josef Stalin wanted Yugoslavia to become a puppet state for the Soviet Union, but Tito was having none of it.

Roman Mars:
And Stalin didn’t take kindly to Tito’s independent streak

Noah Charney:
There is clear evidence that Stalin tried to have him assassinated on at least 20 different occasions, including with such James Bond-like gadgetry as a music box that released nerve gas.

Roman Mars:
Tito eventually outlawed all Soviet influence in Yugoslavia. But He wanted to keep Dedek Mraz — just not dressed like a russian. He wanted to…you know, Yugoslav him up a bit.

Will Aspinall:
But Tito’s initial attempts were a little haphazard. Over the next few Christmases, Grandpa Frost appeared dressed up as a soldier, a miner, a sailor, even a striking worker – basically socialist archetypes of Yugoslav proletarian heroes.

Nena Zidov:
And at the beginning it was quite political, like Dedek Mraz, uh, was bringing the greetings from Tito.

Will Aspinall:
But neither the original recipe Russian Dedek Mraz or the Yugoslavian cosplay version really caught on in Slovenia. The people just didn’t buy it. It felt phony. And so Tito decided to allow each of the six Yugoslav nations, including Slovenia, to design their own bespoke version of Grandpa Frost.

Roman Mars:
And Slovenia, this country that had long been a part of a bigger empire, took the opportunity to redesign Dedek Mraz, and turn him into something distinctly Slovenian.

Will Aspinall:
A sixty-nine year old painter called Maksim Gaspari was brought in to handle the design. This was a genius decision because although Gaspari was a classically trained artist, he was first and foremost a commercial illustrator with a broad fanbase. I think of him as a Slovenian Norman Rockwell. And when it came to Christmas, Gaspari knew what would appeal to as many Slovenes as possible.

Noah Charney:
He tends to be known to the general public because he did this series of paintings that were made into postcards and collectibles of folk scenes related to the Christmas holiday. They’re very twee now. But this was the Christmas aesthetic that people would be used to in Slovenia

Will Aspinall:
In 1952, Gaspari created 3 postcards of his new, updated Slovenian version of Dedek Mraz.

Roman Mars:
He’s smoking an old fashioned decorated pipe that is associated with this one small town in the mountains. He’s got a long sheepskin coat with these ancient Slovenian flower motifs on the coattails. And he’s got a hat made out of dormouse fur.

Will Aspinall:
Dormice were one of the few sources of protein available to the rural poor. And it takes a lot of dormice to make a hat.

Noah Charney:
And Dedek Mraz is like that. He is a trapper who hunts dormice. He is not wealthy, but what wealth he has, he shares by bringing gifts to children.

Roman Mars:
Slovenian fairy tales are full of modest and humble heroes who rise to the challenge when needed. Mountain men ready to answer the call. So Gaspari was making sure that his Dedek Mraz spoke directly to the character of the people.

[MUSIC]

Will Aspinall:
A voluntary organization called the Association of Friends of Youth was in charge of the Dedek Mraz rollout. They made ten identical costumes from Gaspari’s designs, and in 1952 the new Dedek Mraz made appearances in and around the capital. This was followed by a booklet called ‘Dedek Mraz prihaja’ – ‘Dedek Mraz is coming’ in 1957.

Roman Mars:
The booklet had one main instruction. Dedek Mraz was a fairytale figure designed only for kids. He wasn’t a piece of state propaganda the way Stalin or Tito had treated him. He was fun!

Will Aspinall:
Translated into English the booklet said: “Dedek Mraz is not a didactic figure, but a lively, cheerful, witty, fairy-tale figure that sinks into the child’s world so that the child comes to life with it. ” And it seems to have worked.

Jasna:
I believe Dedek Mraz was real when I was younger.

Will Aspinall: This is my friend Jasna. She was a child of the Slovenian seventies and eighties and grew up with the distinctly Slovenian Dedek Mraz.

Jasna:
You know, because you, you really saw him because he came to kindergarten. He was not the fictional character, you know, that you see it only on TV or just hear stories about him or, you know, he will come during night. No, he came in during the day he came to you, he gave you his hand, he hugged you. So it was a real person.

Roman Mars: And it gets better, because they also hired one of the greatest writers of children’s songs in Slovenia, Janez Bitenc, to give Dedek Mraz his own catchy theme song.

Jasna:
Siva kucma bela brada [singing] uh, I don’t even remember the words. Just a second. I need the lyrics. [typing] Okay. [continues singing] Siva kučma, bela brada, topel kožuh, zvrhan koš. Joj, že prišel je med nas stari, dobri dedek Mraz. Rdeče žoge, knjige, zvezke, punčke, sanke in še kaj. Joj, že prišel je med nas stari, dobri dedek Mraz.

Will Aspinall:
Gray hat, white beard, warm coat, full basket. Oh, he’s already come among us good old Dedek Mraz. Red balls, books, notebooks, dolls, sleds and more. Oh, he’s already come among us good old Dedek Mraz.

Will Aspinall:
Say hello to the listeners in America… I’m Dedek Mraz.

Robert Waltl:
In English or Slovene?

Will Aspinall:
Slovene, why not.

Robert Waltl:
Pozdrajleni drobisče nisem več prav urnik nog to do kaj kočak metsu otrok. Pozdraljeni vse moj poslujšalse Ameriki v Angliji pojsem…

Will Aspinall:
This jolly fellow is Robert Waltl. He started playing Dedek Mraz at the main parade in Ljubljana in 1987.

Robert Waltl:
(continues) … Screčno in veselo novo leto vam želi vaš Dedek Mraz.

Will Aspinall:
Robert is quite a character in his own right. We talked for hours in his apartment, alongside the love of his life, his dog, Umbra.

Robert Waltl:
[DOG BARKS] Okay, Umbra merde.

Will Aspinall:
What breed is Umbra?

Robert Waltl:
Lagarto Romagnolo? Italian waterdog.

Will Aspinall:
Fancy.

Robert Waltl:
Yeah. Fancy, fancy.

Roman Mars:
When Robert started performing as Dedek Mraz, Tito had been dead for seven years and Yugoslavia was on a downward spiral to complete disintegration.

Will Aspinall:
But Slovenia was actually doing well economically, and felt that the other republics were dragging her down. So in 1991, Slovenians took their chances and declared independence from Yugoslavia.

Robert Waltl:
It was fantastic. It was really fantastic because it was like almost everyone for the independence.

Will Aspinall:
Jasna remembers this period feeling almost too good to be true.

Jasna:
Yeah. It was scary a little bit because we knew that they wouldn’t let us let us go that easy. It was exciting. And also, you know, you didn’t know what will happen. And then when it happened, it was like – pow! – everything at once.

Will Aspinall:
On June 24th, Robert and a group of actor friends were performing all over the capital. He still vividly remembers how happy everyone was in the hours leading up to Slovenia’s formal declaration of independence.

Robert Waltl:
It was beautiful in Ljubljana. Everywhere, you know, were happy people. Then we went to sleep, I don’t know, four or five morning and then start the alarm for the bombs. So that was really shock.

ABC NEW:
[THE YUGOSLAV AIRFORCE DROPPED BOMBS AND FIRED ROCKETS AND CANON AT SLOVENIAN MILITIA TARGETS THROUGHOUT THE DAY…]

Roman Mars:
But the war only lasted ten days. Slovenia escaped the horror that befell many of the other former Yugoslav nations throughout the 1990s.

Robert Waltl:
What happened in Croatia first and then Bosnia — it’s horrible. It’s really horrible. But for Slovenia… we were lucky.

Will Aspinall:
After centuries of being part of monarchies, empires and failed six-part nation states, Slovenia had achieved independence in under two weeks.

Roman Mars:
But this victory led to a battle over Slovenian culture, one that almost spelled the end for Dedek Mraz.

Robert Waltl:
We were afraid that Dedek Mraz can disappear because some people, they want, you know, to kill him.

Will Aspinall:
Many Slovenes saw this moment as an opportunity to move into the modern world and reject everything from the past. And despite his fun Slovenian rebrand, some people still associated Dedek Mraz with the Soviet Union.

Robert Waltl:
But what was really funny, they want to replace him with Santa Claus.

Roman Mars:
Enter Slovenia’s third magical Christmas-man — Santa Claus. The red suit wearing reindeer having rosy cheeked jolly fellow that you are probably picturing right now thanks in part to the Coca Cola company. Their Christmas character was designed to be used in Coke ads starting in 1931. And like the beverage itself, their santa image went nearly everywhere in the capitalist world.

Noah Charney:
And suddenly Slovenia was a democratic and capitalist friendly country and looking to America and looking to Western Europe and hoping for a brighter, more independent economic future. Well, if you’re interested in economic futures and capitalism, then you want your Santa wearing red pajamas and bringing as many gifts as possible.

Roman Mars:
Many Slovenians embraced Santa Claus. But this time, the new santa didn’t push the old one off the stage. In the end, Dedek Mraz survived the transition from socialist Yugoslavia to democratic Slovenia.

Will Aspinall:
It’s hard to say exactly why, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s because he was so well designed. Even though he was a relatively new creation. Dedek Mraz was crafted to feel like he had always been there. Like he was an ancient artifact of Slovenian culture. And people like Jasna weren’t going to let him go without a fight.

Jasna:
It’s still a part of our history so…why kill it? I grew up with it, you know? I didn’t grow up with Santa Claus. Dedek Mraz is a part of us. So, no way.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Dedek Mraz and Santa Claus were side by side, sharing the Christmas spotlight. And that would have been enough for most countries.

Will Aspinall:
But there was a sleeping giant in this story. Our first magical Christmas-man, who had never really gone away — Sveti Miklavž, the original catholic St. Nick. While the government had banned public religious celebrations in the Yugoslav era, Catholic families still held festivities in private.

Nena Zidov:
So after the independence, all these customs connected with the religion. They were again introduced in the public life. So, Saint Nicholas came back.

Will Aspinall:
And Robert Waltl, Ljubljana’s go-to Dedek Mraz, actually played a key role in Miklavž’s return. He believed that if Slovenia was to move on, it had to reconcile its past as a faithful Catholic nation.

Robert Waltl:
When you show that they can be together, Saint Nicholas and Grandpa Frost Dedek Mraz, and that they can both say something nice and do something nice, it’s beautiful

Will Aspinall:
And so in 1991, Robert, already the capital’s go to Dedek Mraz, decided to organize a parade for Miklavž. It was the first one since the second World War—the saint’s grand return to public life. Never shying away from a challenge, Robert decided to play the central role of Miklavž himself

Robert Waltl:
You know, for me this is theater and when I do theater I want to do perfection.

Will Aspinall:
To get into character, only the most authentic costume for Sveti Miklavz would do.

Robert Waltl:
I asked the bishop of Ljubljana to rent me original, old, you know, Catholic bishop stuff and I was really beautiful — even with the golden shoes!

Roman Mars:
And ever since that moment, when Milkavž returned to the streets of Ljubljana, Slovenia has had all three santas at Christmastime.

Will Aspinall:
And Slovenes have not only completely accepted all the ‘Three Good Men’ – tri dobri možje – they’ve been packaged together in a month of non-stop festivities called merry or “veseli” December.

Jasna:
Vaseli December. It’s the whole month. You know, it’s like, the month of the parties and the happy stuff and that’s why we have all three men because it’s the whole month of good and merry stuff.

Roman Mars:
Each santa gets a specific time slot to perform their own brand of Christmas magic.

Will Aspinall:
First on the calendar is Miklavž. He appears at churches across the country and parades in the big cities on the evening of December 5. I took my family to this parade in 2018. My daughter loved Miklavž but she didn’t react too well when his demon helpers first appeared.

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
[MARNI CRYING]

Roman Mars:
That’s a lot of screaming in terror for a santa parade.

Will Aspinall:
Then comes Santa Claus or Božicek. Christmas Eve is obviously his allotted night, but he tends to hang around the shops and malls.

Roman Mars:
And finally, there’s Dedek Mraz. He actually makes appearances at kindergartens and schools throughout December. But post Christmas, he’s the only Santa left on the scene. His parade happens around New Years.

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
[DEDEK MRAZ PARADE]

Will Aspinall:
Over the course of reporting this story, I met performers of all three santas, including Robert, and they take their jobs extremely seriously.

Robert Waltl:
This is not carnival. This is something very important for children.

Roman Mars:
Helping children is fundamental to Robert’s role in the Slovenian Christmas. But it’s not always easy.

Robert Waltl:
The children, they’re not all happy. They’re not living all in happy families. And when they see they have opportunity to speak with Dedek Mraz, they can say a lot of sad things from their lives. Kids ask you for help, like “My father beat my mother. He’s an alcoholic. Please, Dedek Mraz, can I stay with you? I don’t wanna go home.” That’s really difficult. That’s really difficult. I, normally, I’m not a social worker. I cannot really help to them. Yeah? It’s a lot of frustrations also behind this because how to really help?

Will Aspinall:
Robert’s response really moved me. I always thought dressing up as a santa would be an almost entirely wonderful experience. But it’s clear that there’s also a feeling of real responsibility. All of the santas are supposed to provide comfort to the kids of Slovenia. But according to Robert, it’s Dedek Mraz they turn to most—the Santa designed for the Slovenian people by the Slovenian people.

Robert Waltl:
Today, almost no one thinks Dedek Mraz, came from Soviet Union because we make a completely new story.

Roman Mars:
Slovenia has survived empires and a socialist autocracy to emerge as a proud independent state.

Will Aspinall:
Instead of repressing the past, it has embraced the santas that once defined it, coordinating a festive season that has a time and a place for all of them.

Will Aspinall:
“One last question, how long will you be Dedek Mraz and who will you be passing it on to?”

Robert Waltl:
“How long I will be Dedek Mraz? Who knows? I will try my best, but it depends on my health. So I already have some my colleagues, they can replace me. And this will be… this will continue for sure. Yeah. Dedek Mraz will live forever.”

[KIDS SINGING ‘BELA BRADA’]

[DEDEK MRAZ IS COMING TO TOWN]

Roman Mars:
Coming up after the break, we find out which of Slovenia’s three santas is the most popular of all.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So I’m back with reporter Will Aspinall, and Will, I just want to ask you a little bit more about how the santas operate in Slovenian society. We talk about how they divide up the month of December, but does everyone, you know, celebrate each of them equally or do some of these political and religious factions that created them sort of extend into today? Like, how does it really work with your average family?

Will Aspinall:
Yeah, you can see that these three santas do represent three tribes, if you like. Miklavž goes with the Catholic faithful, Dedek Mraz with old-school socialists and Santa Claus with, you know, the new coming aspirational consumers. But it’s not quite as simple as that. You know, many parents with young children will opt for all three. Some will opt for one or two. I mean, my friend Jasna, when I asked her this question, she explained to me how each of the three Santas functioned in her life. Now she comes from a coastal town called Koper in Italy.
Jasna: The coast was more communist, red area, let’s say, and we have only Dedek Mraz, though we knew Santa Claus because of Italy, because of the border, because they have Santa Claus.

Will Aspinall:
So after independence in 1991, she moved north to the mountains close to the border with Austria, and then she married and had two kids. And as a parent, she welcomes all three santas as a way of celebrating Merry December with both sides of the family.

Jasna:
And usually we went for Christmas in Koper, and for the new year, we are, we were here. So in Koper came Santa Claus, and here came the Dedek Mraz. And okay, Miklavž it was only for fruit and sweets, no toys. So we had also this. So we have all three.

Roman Mars:
So Miklavž is stuck with fruits and sweets. No toys. Will, so how are you raising your kids? Like, are all three santas in their lives?

Will Aspinall:
I’m afraid it’s totally unavoidable. It was Miklavževanje last night, so this morning they received their stockings from Miklavž, and that’s a new thing for them, which they have totally… They’re very happy with, indeed, when they got a stuffed toy, they got a tangerine chocolate shaped like the Devils and Miklavž–

Roman Mars: Oh, wow.

Will Aspinall:
And a new book. But we also have, obviously, we have Father Christmas. As we call him in the UK, Santa Claus, on Christmas Eve. He’s coming up. Dedek Mraz, actually, we haven’t been in the country for New Year’s Eve, so we need to give that a go this year.

Roman Mars:
Oh, so is Dedek Mraz coming to your house or to the kindergarten?

Will Aspinall:
It’s still a bit of wait and see with the pandemic this year, but actually I tracked down the guy who is the Dedek Mraz in our area. He’s a wonderful man called Grega Antolin.

Grega Antolin:
All three santas will survive because they’re superheroes and we need superheroes

Will Aspinall:
Before the pandemic, he would make his living doing live performances in kindergartens all across, all over December. He had other jobs during the rest of the year, but obviously with the pandemic in 2020, with the lockdown that we had, he had to think fast.

Grega Antolin:
Before corona, we make in December live performances and now we must do something new because we were at home.

Will Aspinall:
His genius plan was that he would do an online video-gram service for Slovenian kids. It was inspired by a US Santa-gram video messaging service that he saw. And yeah, he decided to bring it to Slovenia.

Roman Mars:
So, so Santa-gram is like a video message from Santa to kids, and you said he plays Dedek Mraz.

Will Aspinall:
Not just a Dick Morris. This is Slovenian, so he has to do all three. And that requires quite a little bit of financial outlay and planning because he needs not just three costumes, which are pretty expensive because I’ve seen them and they are the real deal. His Dedek Mraz one was almost $2000.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Will Aspinall:
Custom made. He then has to do three different sets, and then he records a different video with each of the most common children’s names in Slovenia.

Grega Antolin:
To be recorded, 150 names of boys and 150 names from girls. This was the most common names in past two years.

Will Aspinall:
Okay, so 150 girls names, 150 boys names, that’s 300 names for each santa. So 300 times 3 is 900 names that he has to record, and it has to work first time. So imagine retakes.

Roman Mars:
Wow, that’s that’s really a lot of work.

Will Aspinall:
And then they– I should say that the parents can choose their santa and they can choose the name, and then they can choose the message. And cleaning teeth is a very high priority for Slovenian parents.

Roman Mars:
So this is the message that santa or Mklavz or Dedek Mraz has to say is that, like, be a good child this year and clean your teeth and then I’ll bring you presents.

Will Aspinall:
Yeah, exactly.

Roman Mars:
Classic.

Will Aspinall:
I really wish. I really wish I could have seen it in person. I did pester him, but it was a closed set.

Roman Mars:
You got to keep these things secret. I mean, this is magical stuff we’re talking about here.

Will Aspinall:
He did very kindly send me some sneak peeks of his performance. So would you like to hear some?

Roman Mars:
Oh, absolutely. Let’s hear him.

Will Aspinall:
OK, first up, Santa Claus.

Grega Antolin:
Ho-ho-ho (continues in Slovene as Santa Claus).

Roman Mars:
You’ve got some energy.

Will Aspinall:
Oh, oh yeah. Oh yeah. And then, okay, so next up, we’ll have Miklavž.

Grega Antolin:
(Speaking in Slovene as Miklavž)

Roman Mars:
It’s kind of like the previous one, but like a little bit more edge in his voice.
Will Aspinall: Exactly. And you know, I’m afraid I’ve been here three years and I can pick out one or two words. I heard “parkeljni.” I had the demons mentioned. But yeah, a little bit more serious, maybe.

Roman Mars:
So let’s hear Dedek Mraz.

Grega Antolin:
(Speaking in Slovene as Dedek Mraz.)

Roman Mars:
Wow, he does that. Nine hundred times! That must be exhausting. I really, I like this guy. He’s dedicated to his craft. That’s fantastic. Did he mention that he had like a preference of which one he liked to perform the most?

Will Aspinall:
He is a big fan of Dedek Mraz.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, yeah. I mean, you can kind of tell, I mean, they’re all excellent, but like there’s like… I mean, you mentioned that he spent $2000 on the costume alone, that Dedek Mraz is really like… that’s a that’s a great one.

Will Aspinall:
It’s a great one. And it’s, you know, it’s the Slovene icon, isn’t it? And I think he really embodies it. But after the first year of data gathering from the Christmas 2020, he actually has this very unique dataset of who is Slovenia’s favorite digital Santa.

Roman Mars:
Oh, because people order these custom videos. And so therefore he knows how many people want Santa vs. Miklavž versus Dedek Mraz. Oh, this is fascinating. Okay, so what was the result?

Grega Antolin:
The 80 percent ordered Santa Claus video. 15 percent was Dedek Mraz, and only five percent was Miklavž.

Roman Mars:
Wow. I mean, like Santa Claus is great. You’ll never get me dissing Santa Claus. But I have to admit I’m a little disappointed that Dedek Mraz isn’t like really the most favorite in Slovenia. Just because, you know, it’s unique to Slovenia. That’s what makes it so special.

Will Aspinall:
Yeah, you kind of want Dedek Mraz to be number one, don’t you, but…

Roman Mars:
You do.

Will Aspinall:
You do. But the way I see it is that Santa Claus has got everything, you know, as Grega says, you know, he’s got the TV, he’s got the songs – most of the songs – he’s got the merch, he’s got the advertising, you know, he’s the king of the screens. And Slovenia, like any country, is as outward-facing as it is inward. So I think to have 20 percent of Slovene parents choosing alternative is actually pretty incredible.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point. That’s a good point. Well, I’m totally fascinated by these three santas and how much they mean to the country and how much they sort of map onto the history of Slovenia. I just can’t thank you enough for bringing the story to us. I just had a joy, you know, watching you make it and bring it to us. It’s been fascinating.

Will Aspinall:
Thank you, Roman. It’s been a pleasure.

———

CREDITS

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Will Aspinall. Edited by Emmett FitzGerald and Joe Rosenberg. Mix and tech production by Jim Briggs. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Music by our director of sound, Swan Real. Delaney Hall is the executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Christopher Johnson, Chris Berube, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.

Special thanks this week to Robert Kužnik.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as photos of Dedek Mraz in action in Slovenia at our website. It’s 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Reporter Will Aspinall spoke with Robert Waltl, an actor who runs a fringe theatre in the capital and who has been the nation’s main Dedek Mraz for over 30 years; Jasna Birsa Spiela, local friend who provided insights and memories of Christmases past; Noah Charney, an American art historian and resident in Slovenia, who wrote the best-selling book The Art Thief in 2007; Nena Zidov, a cultural historian based at the National Ethnology Museum in Ljubljana; children and teachers from Osnova šola, občina Radovljica, with Marnie Aspinall translating.

Images of Dedek Mraz by Maksim Gaspari.

If you want to follow along with Will’s family’s adventures in Slovenia check out — Slovenian Family Instagram.

  1. Gudrun

    Hi there and thanks for making one of the world’s best podcasts. I just wanted to say that maybe you could check out the Icelandic Santa clauses for next Christmas. They are 13. Could be interesting.
    Anyway, Merry Christmas

  2. Darko Duzevic

    The only reason Slowenia had only 10 days war lies in fact that Yugoslav army used Slovenia outposts to attack Croatia with both sides

    Apart from that, really good article!

  3. I love hearing about different holiday traditions surrounding a character we take for granted in the US.

    You should look into the Yule Lads of Iceland – 13 pesky troublemakers that come into town the 13 days prior to Christmas, each with his own annoying habit like stealing meat, licking pots, or sniffing doorways. Their parents are two trolls, known to kidnap and eat naughty children.

    There were once many more Yule Lads — or at least, they had many different names — depending on the region; those are now lost to history, the 13 well-know Lads having been popularized by a poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932.

    Also, there is a giant cat, called the Yule Cat, known to eat children who did not receive a new article of clothing for Christmas.

  4. Alexander Rink

    Loved the story, growing up in Germany where kids are visited by two Santas myself.

    On Dec 6, by Nikolaus, bishop of Myra, with a sack full of presents and accompanied by either “Knecht Ruprecht”, “Pulterklas” or “Rupsack”, depending on the region who punishes/ scares naughty kids.

    And then on Christmas Eve by the “Christkind”, “the Christ Child”, an angel like kid, apparently invented by Martin Luther to replace the catholic “Nikolaus”

  5. Garry

    I’ve been living a stone’s throw (OK, maybe a “long toss”) away from Slovenia in Croatia for the past three Christmases. I visited Ljubljana at Christmastime in 2019 and it was just as picturesque and cheery as Will described it. The Alpine snows make it look like what we a lot of Americans picture when you say “traditional” Christmas.

    In our house Sveti Nikola (Saint Nicholas) reigns supreme but that could be because my American-Croatian son is named Nikola and gets all kinds of special attention on his “name day” (a pretty big deal here for any kid with a saint’s name), Dec. 6.

  6. Gregor

    I’m from Slovenia and my family was never very religious, so Dedek Mraz was always ‘the good guy’ in our family even after 1991.

    However, a few years ago my son was born on January 1st, so to gain some time between gift days, St. Nicholas has now pragmatically become the official ‘good guy’ around here :)

  7. DolencD

    Stories from my home about 3 good men, as we call them, told by the one and only Roman Mars is just too good!
    As an avid 99pi listener since the beginning of the show this is just amazing to me!

  8. Colin Principe

    Hearing Will’s children react negatively to Miklavž’s demons reminded me of a story my parents loved to tell about me when I was growing up in Toronto. We used to go downtown for the annual Santa Claus parade. Toronto had a large contingent of Scottish immigrants when a lot of its power structures were formed, and one legacy of that was that there would be a large number of bagpipe marching bands. Apparently on my first trip to the Santa Claus parade, our family was coming up out of the subway when one of the bands struck up a practice tune before the parade. It apparently scared the living crap out of me to the point where my parents had to turn us around, go back into the subway, and head back home.

  9. Bea

    Very interesting story, but I agree with Guðrún. Iceland has 13 santas and a population of ~350k, so Roman’s declaration of santa density is way off the mark!
    Admittedly the Yule Lads started life as trolls and menaces, but these days they wear the red hats and suits, and bring 13 nights of presents for well behaved children, so I think it’s more than fair to include them in the santa category.

  10. Laura

    A wonderful podcast! Enjoyment and learning. Thank you.
    With such a robust Christmas culture, I fo find myself curious that Melania Knauss Trump despises Christmas so much? Is it her experience or family? Anyway, warmest good wishes to all for The Holidays.

  11. Urban

    I am slovene, living in Spain and I am listening to 99pi for years. This podcast was sureal and the biggest gift to me this year. Thank you so much!

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