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Central Asians Stand By 'Un-Islamic' New Year's Traditions

  • Farangis Najibullah

Father Frosts and Snow Maidens stand near a decorated tree in the Kyrgyz capital. (file photo)

Father Frosts and Snow Maidens stand near a decorated tree in the Kyrgyz capital. (file photo)

Officials in Central Asia insist they will continue the practice of ushering in a Western-style New Year's with parties, decorated trees, and Father Frost despite scattered calls to discard those Soviet-era traditions.

Such adornments were unheard of among a majority of people in those predominantly Muslim states until Soviet rule introduced them, and for years they have been the target of critics who insist such nonnative rites have no place in Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek life.

For the most strident detractors, it appears to make little difference whether the date at issue is December 31-January 1, when the Gregorian calendar dictates, or the Julian equivalent that falls days later. They simply don't think those winter festivities belong in their culture.

In response to such a challenge, the mayor of Tajikistan's capital recently pledged to put up not one but two lavishly decorated fir trees in Dushanbe. He promised the festivities to mark New Year's would be far "grander" than in previous years.

"New Year's is marked in the official Tajik calendar with bold red letters and we will celebrate it appropriately," Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev said.

Party Poopers

The New Year's festivities in Dushanbe are expected to include concerts, fireworks, and food fairs. Father Frost and his sidekick Snow Maiden -- regular fixtures of Soviet-style New Year's celebrations -- will go door to door on New Year's Eve to offer sweets to children.

The mayor's office has declared that New Year's celebrations should not be attributed to any religion and that the date "has nothing to do with Jesus Christ's birthday."

The statements follow a call by the official newspaper of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party urging Dushanbe authorities not to erect the traditional New Year's tree. The tree went up anyway.

Dushanbe's New Year's tree is installed on December 24.

Dushanbe's New Year's tree is installed on December 24.

"Only 3 percent of Dushanbe residents are ethnic Russians, and the rest are all Muslims," wrote Muhibollo Qurbon, chief editor of the "Najot" publication. "So erecting New Year's trees and celebrating New Year's doesn't make any sense for Tajik Muslim youth."

Qurbon suggested the money allocated to such events should be spent on helping elderly Christians in Tajikistan.

Similarly, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, lawmaker Tursunbai Bakir Uulu urged young people not to celebrate New Year's.

Blacklisted

In a meeting with Bishkek students last week, Bakir Uulu, a former ombudsman, said marking New Year's contradicts Islamic traditions.

The lawmaker has a list of "un-Islamic" festivities that he says should be canceled in predominantly Muslim Kyrgyzstan along with New Year's parties. They include Women's Day and International Workers' Day, marked on March 8 and May 1, respectively.

"This is not an Islamic celebration. Even Russians' or Christians' holy book, the Bible, doesn't mention New Year's celebrations," Bakir Uulu says. "It's been made up by people and has no religious significance. Perhaps some Muslims mark this event without understanding the meaning of it, [but] New Year's is not our holiday and it is wrong for us to celebrate it."

Kyrgyz Education Ministry spokeswoman Kerez Zhukeeva counters that meetings with university students should not be used for "religious propaganda."

Despite Bakir Uulu's call, New Year's preparations have been in full swing for weeks in Kyrgyzstan. New Year's trees are up in Bishkek and Osh, fireworks displays are planned for the big cities, and the presidential palace was going ahead with its traditional pre-New Year's gathering of overachieving students and other guests.

In Tashkent, meanwhile, officials rejected reports that Father Frost and Snow Maiden would be frozen out of Uzbek television channels' New Year programs.

The Culture Ministry said the reports -- claiming that state television channels had been given informal instructions not to show the traditional symbols of New Year's celebrations -- were baseless.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek services

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