Monday, January 3, 2011

Grandfather Frost Comes to Visit

An annual tradition in Kazakhstani schools, and across the former Soviet Union, is the Yolka (Christmas Tree) party. The party is to celebrate the New Year, which is the big winter holiday that was created by the atheist communist party to replace the Christian Christmas. It brings together all the non-religious aspects of the western Christmas, adds some elements from Russian culture, and then, just for fun, has everyone dress up like it is Halloween.

"Children join hands and dance around the New Years tree while a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle croons a Kazakh pop song"

New Years still features a decorated evergreen tree. It also has a legendary man in a large coat and white beard who brings presents to children, although “Ayaz Ata” (in Kazakh, “Ded Moroz” in Russian, “Grandfather Frost” in English) has to walk everywhere using his giant staff – no reindeer to help him! He does have a human helper, though, straight out of Russian folklore: “Aksha Kar,” (in Kazakh, “Snegorechka” in Russian, “Snow Maiden” in English.) Aksha Kar was originally the heroine of a Russian fairy tale. An old, childless couple desperately wished for a little girl of their own, and one day they woke to find a snowgirl come alive. Things were wonderful until spring brought warm weather and the macabre end of the old couple's happiness. Somehow, this vivified snowgirl underwent a Pinocchio-like transformation and became Ayaz Ata's helper as he delivers gifts every New Year's Eve. (Or to Yolka parties scheduled the last week of school.)

"Why is it that Ayaz Ata has three times as much food in front of him as Snegorechka? Then again, considering that he pulled down his beard and ate at least 10 pieces of candy, while Snegorechka didn't open her mouth once, I guess it makes sense."

Our school hosts Yolka parties for every grade, in groups of two; that is, first and second graders celebrate together, then third and fourth graders, etc. The parties rotate through the decorated gym, two a day for several hours all week long. These parties are sacrosanct; even though temperatures on Monday were -30 degrees, which means that classes up through 9th grade should be canceled, the 5th-6th grade and 7th-8th grade Yolkas still went forward. Considering how much work those girls put into hairspraying and glittering their hair for their costumes, it really would be cruel to postpone.

Every Yolka party is attended by Ayaz Ata and Aksha Kar, usually played by older students. Inevitably, in the 9th-11th grade Yolka, Aksha Kar is played by a boy, which never fails to draw a giant laugh from the audience. The students have to summon Ayaz Ata by chanting his name loudly over and over. In he sweeps, his shoulder bag loaded with candy which he throws to the children in greeting. Throughout the party, whenever anyone wins a game or does a performance, they are rewarded with a handful of candy from Ayaz Ata.

"The evil Russian witch, Baba Yaga"

Other characters can also make an appearance at the Yolka. Because each party is organized by the classroom teachers of the grades that are participating, there are differences in the program. But at different times throughout the week I met a tiger (because, according the Chinese calendar, 2010 was the year of the tiger), a rabbit (for 2011), and Baba Yaga, the evil witch character from Russian fairy tales. For one party my host mom played a very convincing Baba Yaga, making me slightly concerned about accepting any candy from her that night at dinner. Did she want to roast and eat me?

And of course, all the children are dressed up too. Halloween is fun in the States, but there's something about seeing batman, ninjas, musketeers and tigers dancing around a Christmas tree that makes for a very entertaining spectacle. I discovered, though, that there is a certain age line (between 5th and 6th grade) where children stop wearing adorable costumes and start wearing party dresses covered in tinsel (for the girls) or regular clothes with a mask on top of their head (for the boys.)

Tinsel plays an integral role in the Yolka. After crossing the age line, it become absolutely essential that you wear a garland of tinsel around your neck. The resulting shininess-factor in the room tends to overload the pleasure sensors in the brain and dull the senses, therefore ensuring an enjoyable holiday party no matter what the reality. At least, that's my theory.

The Yolka party, aside from enjoying the spectacle of your classmates dressed up as tinsel-bedecked pirates, basically consists of song and dance performances alongside silly games organized by the teachers. The performances are remarkably similar: an “Eastern” dance performed by girls in belly-baring costumes, a Kazakh dance in glitter-covered costumes, and some form of boys cross-dressing, be it a ballet dance, a fashion show, or a song. There are always multiple songs sung to blaring pop soundtracks and a handful of poems which you know the students only recited for the handful of candy Ayaz Ata will give them. Also popular are “American” style hip hop dances. These were rather sloppily costumed until I came along and set the record straight. At the beginning of the year, some of my students came up to me and asked me what kind of traditional clothes Americans wear. What do you say to that question? It’s like the question, “What’s America’s national dish?” Hamburgers? Hot dogs? Pizza? As far as our “national costume” goes, I told the girls we wear jeans and t-shirts. The message must have sunk in, because since that day every American hip hop dance that has been performed featured the girls wearing jeans and white t-shirts. I’m glad I get to leave a legacy to my school.

At the end of the Yolka, for the younger children, it's traditional to join hands and circle the tree in the middle of the room while singing a song. The party ends with Ayaz Ata delivering his presents to the children. These are usually bags of candy and a small stuffed animal, although a couple of seventh grade classes were given mugs. Mugs? I came away with a handful of candy thrown at me by a very generous Ayaz Ata.

"Ayaz Ata works hard to get rid of all the candy in his bag"