Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Merry Christmas Happy New Year Merry Christmas!

As the calendar approached December 25, our thoughts turned to stockings, trees and the traditions that we love at this time of year.  A white Christmas in Astana was guaranteed, *just in case* you were wondering.  There was absolutely no doubt about that!

But, December 25 was just another business day in Kazakhstan.  For the two-thirds of the country that are Muslim, Christmas has no religious significance.  For the quarter of the population that might celebrate Christmas, they follow the Russian Orthodox holiday calendar, which celebrates Christmas on January 7.  and thus December 25 is just a date a few days before the holidays start.

I haven't really known why the different dates are celebrated other than a vague sense that it related to different calendars. With the help of my friends at Google, I learned that this is in fact true:  we Westerners switched to the Gregorian Calendar (in 1582!), but the Russian Orthodox church prefers to keep using the same Julian Calendar it's been using for over a 1000 years.  There are 13 days difference between them - hence Christmas on December 25 in the West and January 7 in the East.  

I also learned that Orthodox Christmas celebrations start with a 40-day Lent during which practicing Christians do not eat any meat. Lent ends with the first star in the night sky on January 6, symbolizing the birth of Jesus Christ...and the start of the Christmas dinner, which may or may not be followed by attending a Christmas Eve church service. 

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks banned Christmas, and many of the Christmas traditions morphed into New Year traditions, and during the secular Soviet era this played out across the Union, including here in Kazakhstan.  Thus today, New Year's is by far the bigger event, celebrated with customs that we know as Christmas traditions - getting an evergreen tree, exchanging gifts, spending time and enjoying meal with family, exchanging holiday greetings.  But, while his picture is around, I haven't heard that Santa makes any house calls on New Year's Eve.  He will probably still be resting up from gifting to the Western world just a few days before, right?

Blending the Christmas and New Year traditions of the West, we can attest that New Year's is also celebrated with fireworks at midnight!  Lots of families around our building set off their own fireworks - we witnessed over an hour of everything from Roman candles to the more impressive bursts well above the rooftops just from our 5th floor windows. 

Fireworks for sale
Photo: Happy New Year from Kazakhstan! The locals are not ceding any fireworks titles to the Chinese tonight.
As seen from our window - not bad for a home-grown display!

We did celebrate on December 25, helped by the arrival of our air freight (containing Christmas decorations, presents and all of our cooking & baking gear) just 2 days earlier, and then our final suitcase showed up at last on December 25 proper, a Christmas miracle :-). We spent Christmas Eve with some fellow Americans, and hosted my colleagues for an American-style Christmas Day dinner.

Our "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree

Although we are far, our hearts and thoughts are with you, our family and friends, and we wish you all a wonderful holiday season and wonderful new year whatever day you may celebrate.  Merry Christmas from Kazakhstan, and our sincere wishes that 2014 will be a wonderful year in all of our lives.

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