It was the last shopping day before New Year -- the Soviet Union's major nonpolitical holiday -- and the toy store was packed. Lines of people at the counters and at the cashier competed for space with crowds pushing their way in and out of the store.

Buried in the steamy cluster of wool-clad Muscovites, a little girl in a pink hat pestered her mother.

"And Grandfather Frost, will he come?" she kept asking. Her mother had to bend low to answer. "He'll come," she said.

Grandfather Frost is the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus, although he comes not at Christmas but at New Year in keeping with the ideology of the Communist rulers in the Kremlin. Since the Soviet revolution, many Russian Christmas traditions have been postponed until New Year when people are encouraged to give children gifts, decorate fir trees and enjoy holiday feasts and libations.

It has recently become customary to hire a Grandfather Frost -- for about $3.50 -- to visit children in their own home.

The little girl's mother had ordered a Grandfather Frost for 3 p.m. on New Year's Eve. The evening, when families gather for their holiday meal, might have been a more traditional hour, but Moscow is a big city and there are not enough Grandfather Frosts to go around at prime time. To accommodate the guest, some families had to organize their New Year's celebration a week early.

In this case, the mother put in her Grandfather Frost order at the same toy store where she bought her New Year's presents. Barring some mixup, he would arrive at the family's apartment, his sack full of the gifts, put on a show for her 4-year-old daughter and her neighbor's children, be treated to a glass of vodka and depart on his rounds.

At one toy store alone, a spokesman said, 1,000 orders for Grandfather Frost were placed this year. Until recently, store employes handled the orders themselves, dressing up in the red and white coats, full beards and white felt boots.

But when the business grew, the store could not handle all the requests. Now the store hands its Grandfather Frost orders over to Zarya, a city-wide enterprise with neighborhood offices that supplies cleaning, babysitting, shopping and other services.

Many of Zarya's Grandfather Frosts are young actors using the New Year's season to supplement their earnings.

For those Grandfather Frosts who travel from apartment to apartment -- mostly by taxi -- the custom of downing a glass of vodka at each stop can take its toll: One tipsy Grandfather Frost was seen leaning against a lamppost, hat and beard askew.

In schools, factories and offices, New Year's celebrations began last week before the start of the three-day holiday. For school-age children, now on their winter vacation, there were pageants complete with the full cast of Russian fairy tale characters -- including the Snow Maiden, Grandfather Frost's grandaughter -- and performances of the same songs and poems presented by their parents and grandparents before them. ("A little fir tree was born in the woods and it grew in the woods, green and graceful. . . .")

For most people, preparations for the New Year consisted of shopping for both gifts and food. Office workers slipped out of their jobs early to stand in line for such sought-after items as chicken and good sausage.

Chickens, good cuts of meat, greens and even suckling pigs were available without standing in line at the farmers' market, but at a price. The market is one place in Moscow where the laws of supply and demand are given free rein and farm workers selling their privately produced goods were taking full advantage of the holiday rush.

"It will be more tomorrow," said one woman behind a counter, fondly patting a 15-ruble chicken, costing the equivalent of $12 at the official rate of exchange. "It will be sold," said another confidently as shoppers gaped with disbelief at the 80-ruble ($67) price tag stuck in the mouth of a 30-pound piglet.

Saturday was the last working day before the holidays, but in name only. By afternoon, the streets were filled with shoppers, fewer and fewer office phones were answered and for vodka-loving Russians the serious drinking had begun.

There was a ball at the Kremlin last night for young party leaders, and more are scheduled for New Year's Eve. But most families celebrate at home or with friends, with the fir tree in the place of honor.

By the end of the week, the selection of fir trees sold in lots around the city had grown thin -- literally. Trees with limp and scrawny branches were selling for 4 rubles ($3.36) and up. People grumbled, but they paid.

But the real frost was the source of the city's most glamorous decoration this week. A light snow fell Saturday night and by morning, it had turned all of Moscow's trees into statues of white filigreed lace. The effect was nothing if not seasonal. in the mouth of a 30-pound piglet.

Saturday was the last working day before the holidays, but in name only. By afternoon, the streets were filled with shoppers, fewer and fewer office phones were answered and for vodka-loving Russians the serious drinking had begun.

There was a ball at the Kremlin last night for young party leaders, and more are scheduled for New Year's Eve. But most families celebrate at home or with friends, with the fir tree in the place of honor.

By the end of the week, the selection of fir trees sold in lots around the city had grown thin -- literally. Trees with limp and scrawny branches were selling for 4 rubles ($3.36) and up. People grumbled, but they paid.

But the real frost was the source of the city's most glamorous decoration this week. A light snow fell Saturday night and by morning, it had turned all of Moscow's trees into statues of white filigreed lace. The effect was nothing if not seasonal.