The song "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" claims that the most popular person at this time of year is headed "right down Santa Claus Lane." That lane may be getting longer or even changing locations, because Santa Claus, his reindeer and sleigh full of toys are coming to Kyrgyzstan and the people there are warmly embracing him.
The story of how and why this jolly old man with rosy cheeks and a wink in his eye ended up being courted by a country in the heart of Asia begins with a survey conducted by the Swedish engineering company Sweco in early December. Rebecca Gunner of Sweco provided RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service with the origins of the idea. Gunner said it started with "a tradition in the company to every year find some kind of idea around Christmas to send a Christmas card to our customers." She said Sweco has a department that does calculations for customers, usually companies that transport packages around Sweden.
And this year, these transportation experts focused on what most children would say is the most important issue at this time of the year. According to Gunner, the transportation experts at Sweco "wanted to help Santa to have an efficient route around the world since there are so many kids who need to be given presents. So that's why the idea came up."
And the experts concluded that Kyrgyzstan was the best location for Santa Claus to start his all-important annual journey. Gunner described the route and why it was better for Santa, saying, "He starts there [in Kyrgyzstan] and then he starts with China and India, where most of the children are living and then he goes to the West." That, Gunner said, helps Santa because "he travels so that he gains time, since the earth is moving at the same time that he's traveling to the West. So actually they calculated that by doing that he would have 48 hours instead of 24 hours."
Bishkek Opens Its Arms
But Santa has been living in the far north for many years. What would make St. Nick consider moving to Kyrgyzstan? Turusbek Mamashev, the head of the State Committee on Tourism, said maybe giving Santa Claus his own mountain would help lure this famous resident of the north to Kyrgyzstan. And Mamashev announced that a mountain peak between the Osh and Naryn provinces "was named the Peak of Santa Claus." And Mamashev said "on the 30th of December we are organizing a festival for Santa Claus with the participation of our president [Kurmanbek Bakiev]." New Prime Minister Igor Chudinov also attended that event.
And on December 30, that was exactly what happened. Bishkek held a festival for Santa Claus. And not just one Santa Claus, but some 300 of them -- including the Kyrgyz Santa, called "Ayaz Ata" (Snow Father) and the Russian version called "Ded Moroz" (Grandfather Frost). All showed up to entertain the thousands of children and their parents who came.
The many Santa Clauses also showed that there can be variations to the traditional red and white garb. Some were dressed all in blue, or in white -- the "Father Frost" look -- while a few combined traditional Santa with the traditional Kyrgyz "kalpak," the pointed hat that the Kyrgyz people have been wearing for centuries.
Famous Kyrgyz theater and film actor Duishen Baitobetov was among those who donned the Santa clothes for the festival and he was certainly in the spirit of the season. Baitobetov made a wish for the New Year. Dressed all in white with a kalpak on his head, Baitobetov said, "Let there be goodness and unity in our state and in our nation." Baitobetov said he hoped that the Santa Claus festival would be symbolic "with dreams and aims that all the Santa Clauses, Ayaz Ata, Snegurochkas (Russian "Snow Girl"), and Ded Morozes in the world would live for peace, they would live in unity and there would be friendship, and that the New Year would be a good year."
The children seemed to be enjoying themselves on the snowy night in Bishkek and sang songs about Santa Claus and the New Year.
And for travel in Kyrgyzstan's mountains Santa may find it easier to go by yak instead of reindeer and at least one Santa Claus in Bishkek did arrive on the back of this bulkier cousin of the reindeer.
The Central Asian states have been doing all they could since 1991 independence to bring world attention to their region. At times strange circumstances have helped bring such attention. One example is Kazakhstan and the fictional character Borat, who is supposed to be a reporter from Kazakhstan. The Borat movie brought Kazakhstan priceless publicity and made the country's existence known to millions.
Look out Borat, Santa Claus is coming to Kyrgyzstan.
(Santa's helpers Janyl Chytyrbaeva and Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)