A couple of weeks ago I was asked if I minded going back down to Almaty to work temporarily. I checked the weather forecast and saw that it was a positively tropical 3°C so I decided that it was a good excuse to escape the rapidly advancing winter in Astana and catch up with friends who still live in the city.
My arrival in Almaty coincided with the start of the festive season in Kazakhstan. In the UK it is hard to escape Christmas any time after the beginning of November (though I am perhaps under estimating that a little!) but having lived abroad for a few years now, and having not been bombarded with adverts for all sorts of Christmas paraphernalia and festive songs filling the radio waves, I do forget what time of year it is. In fact, I tend to be more excited about the three week holiday I am going to have from work!
This being said, also experiences the consumerism we witness each winter in the UK and the shops here are filled with trees and decorations, special gift sets and chocolate selections boxes and, of course, fancy dress Father Christmas suits.
Buildings, from shops to schools, are brightly lit with colourful lights and blow-up snowmen. I went in to Ramstore, one of the major foreign supermarkets in Kazakhstan the other day, and was greeted with various sized, plastic Christmas trees and animated models, dancing and flashing along to Jingle Bells. I did think that, perhaps, this was just because it was an international supermarket, but I took a trip down to the local Kazakh bazaar at the weekend and along with the fake goods from ‘over the border’ and the goats heads, there were also rows and rows of festive goods. The sellers are noticeable because of their red and white Santa hats! In fact, these hats are to be seen throughout the year in Almaty, as they seem to be some kind of uniform for the foreign construction workers who are employed to build most of the city. I have not yet worked out the reason, or significance, of this!
Almaty has long tree-lined boulevards and many of these trees are now decorated with flashing lights, giving the effect of falling snow. Much of the abandoned land, along with the major sights of the city, is now decorated with glittering trees and polar bears but since the snow has started falling they don’t look out of place. In the evenings, locals and visitors wander around the displays taking photos and enjoying the winter scenes. Walking to work in the morning, along one of the city’s main highways, now feels like strolling through Santa’s grotto. The only difference to the UK is the fact that they are not turned on by a ‘celebrity’ but are put up haphazardly by council workers over a number of weeks.
Due to the fact that Kazakhstan is a Muslim country, Christmas is not celebrated as a Christian festival so these adverts and decorations are actually for their New Year celebrations. In Kazakhstan December 31 until January 2 is a holiday and so December 24 and 25 is like any other working day.
Father Christmas does visit children in Kazakhstan though and he is called Деда Мороза (Ded Moroz), or Grandfather Frost. He has a little helper who is his granddaughter Снегу́рочка (Snegurochka), who is made of snow. The children seem just as excited to meet him , as I saw outside the Cartier shop at the weekend, where his elves were greeting children in their ice sleigh. They receive presents on New Year’s Day from Grandfather Frost and enjoy the day with family and friends, as well as plenty of fireworks and Shampanskoye .
Orthodox christians in Kazakhstan tend to follow the old Julian calendar and celebrate the day on January 7, when they go to church and spend the day in much the same way.
This year there is another big celebration-that of 20 years of Kazakh independence. This will take place on December 16 and is a yearly national holiday, which obviously will have a great deal more significance this year. And of course for those who feel the need to celebrate that little bit more, there is always the old Russian New Year to enjoy on January 14! Unfortunately, it is back to work for us on January 9!
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