Preparations for Kyrgyz New Years, or janga jiel, start early December, all of course leading up to December 31st at midnight. Since it starts early December, a janga jeil virgin is very confused for a solid month about this Kyrgyzstan tradition, the most important tradition in the Kyrgyz culture. There are Christmas decorations in the stores. There are Santa pictures, and gift bags, and wall hangings everywhere. An explosion of tinsel occurs, and no, I cannot guarantee that nobody was hurt. Christmas trees appear, both in homes and in the main square in front of the government building right beside the Lenin statue. This Kyrgyzstan travel blog is not so much about travel, but there is much cultural confusion.
Soooo…we do celebrate Christmas? No. There are baskets, decorated with Santas and winter scenes, with candy and chocolate inside. Soooo…we are celebrating Easter? No. There are children’s costumes for sale, and parents are buying getups that will transform their little humans into princesses, teddy bears, mermaids, pirates, go-go dancers, and cowboys. Soooo…we’re celebrating Halloween. No. I see Champagne! Ok, that I can definitely identify with New Years Eve. Sure.
So this is the deal: because the Soviets disallowed religion, and as we all know, people have to fight for the right to party, the folks of Kyrgyzstan have made New Years Eve their big holiday, complete with all of the best parts of the best holidays. There are costumes, candy, chocolate, decorations, great food, many bevies, and a jolly man in red giving gifts (bearing a striking resemblance to Mr. K Kringle, but is in fact Father Frost, who is accompanied by his daughter, Daughter Frost). People give gifts to children, but not in the crazy Western world way, phew, and friends and family guest at each other houses. Unlike New Years in the West, on the night of most people stay home with their families, and celebrate together. So for the people in the West who do not do New Years Eve partying, this is the place for you! Mom, Dad, you would love it!
My first taste of the Kyrgyz holiday season was my little sister’s ‘concert’. I would call it a Christmas Concert, but as we just learned, that would just be incorrect. I was with her, and Akmaral said her concert was at 12:30pm on Monday and then started singing Jingle Bells. Ok…I’ll give it a whirl. I showed up to her school a little after 12:30, which was fine, because it’s Kyrgyzstan and nothing starts on time, and was pointed in the direction of a room where Mr. and Mrs. Tinsel has obviously fallen in love and then populated the world with tinsel explosion children. There was an audience of apas and younger siblings, and then one oddly out of place Canadian.
Soon after I arrived, a line of about 25 little kids, came out and sat in chairs in a horseshoe formation. These kids were in all of the different costumes mentioned before: princess, bears, pirates etc. Akmaral was in a gorgeous pink princess dress, her hair and makeup had been professionally done, and I barely recognized her. I haven’t had my hair professionally done since graduation. High school graduation, not even university! Akmaral didn’t see me for a time either and when she did, she waved crazy like and completely lost concentration on the song she was singing.
The class sang some wonderful Russian songs, recited some Russian things, did some dances (my favorite dance was the 7 pirates who danced to Backstreet Boys’ ‘Larger than Life’ and made great use of their toy pistols, going around shooting their mothers and classmates in a flurry of gunfire), and had some competitions. My favorite competition was the orange eating competition, which Akmaral really excelled at.
Father and Daughter Frost came out at the end, and honestly FF was kind of scary to me. But maybe that’s only because he was speaking Russian, and everything said in Russian has the ability to come out a little scary. After the concert, there were group photos taken, and proud apas going crazy with their smart phones. Admittedly, I may have been pretty proud too, finally understanding that whole “my kid is cuter and smarter and knows the songs better that your kid thing”. Oh man. The concert was great fun, and now I get to torture Akmaral with video footage of her singing. So very worthwhile experience.
Over Christmas, I left Osh and went to Naryn for a few days. Naryn is the coldest part of Kyrgyzstan. Oi. I hung out with fellow volunteers, made and ate a ton of food, drank wine, stayed warm, and generally enjoyed an odd combination of Christmas, Hanukah, and Kyrgyzstan. I also managed to get frost nip on toes my very last morning there as I was waiting for the taxi to leave. My tiny toes were not meant for such climes, and my absolute respect and awe goes out to the volunteers who live in Naryn. Back to Osh I must go!!!! I have a Kyrgyz New Years to celebrate…in a warmer city.
So here is the run down of my Kyrgyz December 31st…
The people in my house over Kyrgyz New Years were: My whole host family, Ata (father), Apa (mother), 2 sisters (Aneesa, 19, and just home from semester abroad in Norway, and Akmaral, 8) and two brothers (Suban, 22 and Eldos, 14); my Ata’s father (Chong-Ata, super old) and two nieces (ages 15 and 4). And me!
At around 1pm, we had the first meal. We had a variation of plov, the southern traditional dish, salad, fruit, cheese, and of course chai. At this meal, my ata, and Chong Ata had some swigs of whiskey, but nothing crazy. It was at this time that Chong Ata was baffled by me not knowing Russian and tried speaking it to me anyways. He also laughed when I told him I was 30, but everybody said it was because he thought I look younger, blush. That old guy still has game.
After lunch we all went our separate ways for a while. I watched Gilmore Girls and read my book. Through the afternoon, people would go off solo, and then merge back together, and then separate again. At one point I came downstairs and the little 4 year old was staring at the small Kyrgyz New Years Tree (NOT Christmas tree), touching the decorations. I figured this was a good time to run upstairs and grab the great Christmas decoration that Dave and Merry Jo, (the most wonderful Travelbloggers in the whole world!!!!!) sent me in a care package…which I will discuss more later.
Akmaral and the other girls all came then and we had a fine time making the tree more sparkly and festive. I then gave some paddleboards (also in said package!) to the two little ones, and they proceeded to narrowly avoid blinding themselves with a bouncey ball on a string for the rest of the day. Excellent.
Later, at around 6pm, we had dinner, chicken, bread, tea, soup, and horse sausage. Which tastes like horse. And in my case often has a horse-hair stuck in it somewhere… Not my favorite, but not the worst either. It was after dinner I contributed with my Western holiday cultural component by giving gifts to my family members. And they were so thrilled! Pretty sure my Apa cried. Akmaral got games and little craft sets, Eldos got a car calendar and a Beatles guitar Tab book, Aneesa and Suban both got Canada Olympic Red Mittens, Ata got garden gloves, and Apa got a beautiful silk Native art scarf and earrings. Thrilled!
It was after dinner that reality started to set in…there was no alcohol being served. And I was expected to stay up past midnight. I’m thirty now, you know? I went and had a nap. Kyrgyz New Years needs energy.
Everybody congregated back in the guesting room at around 11:40pm. There was wine (Finally!!), Champagne, and a great array of food, some which I hadn’t seen in some time. I ate the entire plate of blue cheese that Aneesa had brought back from Norway. Nobody else liked it, so I took care of that problem, #Kyrgyz New Years problems. I had a few slices of kiwi, some decadent chocolate…as you can see Peace Corps volunteers in Kyrgyzstan miss food stuffs… And the wine was great, it was from Australia!!! Which is far out of my volunteer salary price range, so that tasted amazing too. Much better than my typical boxed sludge.
At midnight, Chong Ata made a short toast, Suban popped the champagne and we all toasted to the Kyrgyz New Years. That lasted about 3 minutes when we all ran outside to light explosives off and watch them blast into the sky! I made some calls to special people in KG, sent some texts, realized that hey, yes, the Kyrgyz phone networks sure do go down in times of heightened usage, and then went back inside, to where my double fist of wine and champagne glasses awaited. Because you can take the girl out of…I don’t know where that is going, I just like wine!
Akmaral gave us a performance of kara jorgo, the Kyrgyz shoulder dance as we volunteers call it, and Eldoc played us a rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine on his guitar. And it was a touching moment, as I sat beside a very old Kyrgyz man, with his white beard, and his fur hat on, inside the house, no teeth, beaming at his grandson. Just touching! Another great thing was that my family did not make me give a toast, as is customary with most Kyrgyz families. My people do not relish making me feel awkward, and I love and thank them for that.
After the wine and champagne was drunk, the food eaten, and the kids starting to fall asleep, I figured that was my cue to finally be able to go to bed myself. Staying up until midnight with no vino power is a tough slog! I slept in until 11am the next day. Kyrgyz New Years is exhausting!!!
Shout-outs to my Holiday Heros!!!!!
Living abroad, nothing brightens your day like mail. Well, apparently blue cheese does too, but more realistically, mail.
My mother, the brilliant Sue Kydd, is awesome at mail generally speaking, I get cards and envelopes of good news all the time. But for Christmas, she sent an amazing box, with things for me as well as the gifts for the family. It made me cry. Really. Thank you Mom.
As mentioned before, Dave and Merry Jo, from this right here Travelblog community, sent me a package full of Christmas joy, general ‘yes, this is amazing to receive while living in a developing country’, (5-ply Kleenex anybody?), and some fantastic assortments to pass on to the kids in my life. Also, chocolate. Thank you Dave and Merry Jo, for sending a wonderful package to the girl you’ve never met. That’s amazing.
I found love in the form of a giraffe post card and a media loaded flash drive from Allan, my wonderful uni friend currently living in Sydney, Australia. He is catching me up with THE movies of the year, none of which I have even heard of. What a guy. Thank you Allan.
I received a box of knitted warmth and delicious snacks for my wonderful aunts, Aunt Joan and Aunt Kay. Probably the only box ever that has gone from Lewiston, Idaho to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. History was made. I’m eating the dark chocolate pumpkin seed bark right now. Delectable. And the knitting kept me warm in Naryn! Thank you Aunts!
And as added bonuses, I have been showered with love from all kinds of family friends with Christmas cards. Seriously showered. The post office lady has my phone number now. So thank you to all of the people who sent my Christmas joy, not only I, but also my Kyrgyz family, loved going through the cards.
I hope everybody reading had a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year, best wishes in 2015, and hey, maybe the coming year might bring you Kyrgyzstan’s way! If so, you have a friend here!!! Happy Kyrgyz New Years!!!!
Originally published January 2015