Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Holiday Season

Aziza in front of our Yolka, all decked out for the holidays.

Christmas hasn't happened yet in Kazakhstan, and December 25th is a regular working day. (Russian Orthodox Christmas, for those religious enough to attend church, is on January 7th.) I requested Dec. 25th off, though, and I think my school felt sorry enough for men (every other question I'm asked is either, “Do you miss home?” or “Are you cold?”) that they let me have Saturday off too. I went in to the nearby city of Kokshetau, where several of my Peace Corps friends live. My friend Molly lives with a Catholic family, and so they were also celebrating the 25th by having a small get together at their apartment. They kindly invited me to join them, and I was happy for the short get away.

I was incredibly blessed to find a protestant church in Kokshetau. It's a small little Presbyterian gathering, and although I haven't been able to make it in on Sunday for regular services yet, I was able to go on Christmas evening for the special holiday service with another PCV in Kokshetau, Hannah. It was all in Russian, but because of the holiday most of the service was musical numbers and a Christmas skit, so I got the gist of it. The skit showed the many prophecies about the coming Messiah throughout history, and it was very fun to watch how Kazakhstani low-budget church plays compared to American ones. I think the church was too small to have enough kids for a children's Christmas play, so everyone was involved. First came Adam and Eve, and I didn't have to understand the loud argument that ensued in Russian to know what they were angry about. Then Abraham and Sarah came out, in traditional Kazakh costume, from the man's scull cap to the brocaded vest. I never knew the Ur was actually located in Kazakhstan. The rest of the characters, including King David and Isaiah, could have been from an American production, sheets draped over their heads and tied on with strips of cloth.

Dinner at Molly's house that evening was a lovely, typically Kazakhstani “gosti” experience. (See my earlier blog post about going “v gosti.” There was way too much food, served in three courses (salads, meat, and dessert) over the course of as many hours. For entertainment, we gave toasts and sang songs. Hannah and I sang several Christmas carols, and Molly's mom played the guitar very well.

The big holiday in Kazakhstan is New Years, and it comes complete with a decorated tree and an old, bearded man in a red suit. (Only the tree is called a “yolka” and the old man is “Ayaz Ata.”) Our school was decked out in “Zhanga Zhilmen” (Happy New Year) signs, our very own decorated yolka, and a plethora of shiny tinsel. And just before school let out for the break, each of the classes had their own New Year's parties, called “Yolka.”

These yolka are a big deal, lasting several hours each. Over the course of three days, each grade of students rotated through the gym for their own party. I was invited to all of them, and made it to the 5th grade, 6th grade, and high school (9-11th grades) parties.

For starters, everyone dresses up for New Years, kind of like Halloween in America. (And, like Halloween in America, the ratio of children to adults who dress up, and the number of adults who think putting on a funny wig is “dressing up,” is about the same.) The 5th grade yolka had the theme “gypsies,” and all the girls were decked out in flowery skirts, scarves, and an abundance of lipstick. The boys, on the other had, seemed to think that “gypsy=pirate,” and so wore earrings and painted on mustaches. There were a few, though, that either didn't get the memo, or couldn't resist wearing their favorite costume, because I saw at least one skeleton, and other boy who was wearing his dracula cape in addition to his skull-and-crossbones headscarf. And, in addition to these costumes, everyone was wearing at least one tinsel garland. I think the tinsel garland is a required accessory at New Years time, because everyone wears them. The sixth grade yolka was a much more conventional mix of princesses, ninjas, Aladdin, and one very nice bird. (All with requisite tinsel, of course.)

Several gypsies perform a musical number at the fifth grade yolka.

The yolka party itself is a mix of games and performances. Many of the students prepared songs or dances or recited poetry for their classmates. The variety show idea is very popular in Kazakhstan, and pretty much every organized gathering must have at least two or three performances. Sometimes these are quite well done, but usually they end up being basically karaoke, with over-loud pop music blaring behind a slightly off key singer, while everyone claps along. The only variation for the yolka was that after every performance, Ayaz Ata and his helper, Snegorichka, gave the performers some chocolate. These two characters were played by a couple of 10th grade students from our school, and they looked pretty tired of it after eight yolkas. Other dressed up characters also made appearances. These included Baba Yaga, the evil witch from Russian fairy tales, and an ox and a tiger, to say goodbye to 2009, the year of the ox by the Chinese Zodiac, and welcome 2010, the year of the tiger. The mix of cultures here is always interesting.

Ayaz Ata, Snegorichka, and a tiger welcome the new year.

The high school yolka ended with a discoteca, which is basically a school dance. For the first few songs, all the teachers joined in. One huge difference between America and Kazakhstan is that everybody dances here. And I mean everybody. Although there are a few people who just stand up and sway back and forth to the beat, most everyone else really gets into it. I'll talk more about dancing in Kazakhstan when I write about the wedding I went to (which was fabulous), but I mention it now because of how strange it was to see teachers and students dancing together. Even the director (school principal) was out on the floor, breaking it down in a very awkward dance step that wasn't quite in time with the music.

The day after the high school discoteca, the teachers had their own New Year's party, complete with 3-hour 3-course meal, karaoke performances, lots of toasts, and a discoteca of their own. And, of course, the DJ (the music teacher) had to play a slow song right when I was standing next to the director, who politely asked me to dance. Slow dancing with your boss, especially when he has no sense of rhythm and you don't know how to follow, is rather awkward. And, to top it off, we talked about the weather (“Are you cold here?”) and politics (“How do you like our president, Nazabayev?”) I really need to learn some more dance moves if this pattern is going to continue.

There was one more yolka waiting for me, the one held by our town on New Year's Eve. It started at 8pm and lasted to 10pm, and the whole thing was outside in the town square. I wore three pairs of socks under my boots, three pairs of long johns under my pants, and three sweaters under my coat, and stayed reasonably warm the whole time, although I had to keep jumping up and down most of the time. The town had set up a giant yolka tree in the square, and also built a “snow village.” Our village was most carvings made from ice blocks, done by various offices around town like the mayor's office, the hospital, and each of the schools. (The men teachers from our school carved two very nice penguins and a polar bear.) In addition to the animals, there were several ice slides that kids were sliding down. Despite how incredibly slippery they were, most of the older kids were riding down standing up, although a few took spills on the way down. The less brave would do the “Asian squat,” heals on the ground as well as toes. I, being neither brave enough to stand up, nor flexible enough to do the Asian squat (although I have been practicing), sat down on my behind like only those under 7 years were doing, and enjoyed myself so much I went two more times. Aset spent the whole 2 hours sliding, and never even came over the the yolka gathering.

Me in front of a giant ice squirrel, in Kokshetau's Snow Village.

The actual yolka involved the required karaoke songs, and visits from Ayaz Ata, Snegorichka, and a tiger for the new year. The akim, or mayor, of our region came and gave a speech. There was also an impressive fireworks display, which I enjoyed despite the snowflakes falling on my glasses and clouding my vision. When you're used to watched fireworks from a lawn chair set up by a dusty gravel road on a hot summer's evening, snowflakes falling on your face is a new experience.

After the yolka finished, we had to walk 45 minutes to get home, since the buses stop at 7:30pm. At home, warm bisfarmak, cold salads, hot tea, and a variety show on televisions waited for us. Ten minutes before midnight, President Nazarbayev came on tv to wish the country all the best for the next year, and then it was 2010, and time for bed.