Christmas seemed to sneak up on me this year. Last year, I remember longing for Christmas as soon as the month of January began. I wasn’t necessarily feeling the holiday cheer all around me, as no one else knew it was Christmas. But I was trying to spread the Christmas cheer as much as I could.
This year was markedly different, as my work decided to celebrate Christmas. We have had a really great Halloween party for a number of years, and they wanted to build on that success by having a Christmas party on the 25th. Awesome! Christmas at work. Thanks, guys! But they didn’t really know what Christmas was.
I guess it’s hard to really define the holiday. Do you start with the modern secular event and work backwards to the winter solstice celebrations of pagan times? As a Peace Corps volunteer, how much should I connect the religious side of the holiday with the celebration? Are manger scenes strictly religious or is there some cultural side to them. Somehow I managed to not really be in charge of the Christmas party. Ruslan took the responsibilities despite having never celebrated Christmas or really knowing what it was. But that’s okay, because a party is a party, and people here know how to plan parties. (Party means show/concert. Because you have to have the party filled with games and activities. To illustrate, Christmas party was supposed to start at 6:00. It’s 6:15 and people are already there eating and mingling, and my counterpart tracks me down to ask, “When should we start the party?” I look around, and swear that it’s already started. But alas, that’s not the party concept here.)
December flew by and all of a sudden the 20th was here. And I had committed to crocheting stockings for our six new volunteers and plan our Christmas gathering. Last year crocheting six seemed so easy when I had nothing to do after work except watch Kazakh television. This year it was hard to find the time. This year, they Christmas party would be different as well. Saturday would be Christmas Eve (although it fell on the 26th) and we would watch movies and sing carols and make cards. And Sunday morning (the 27th) would be Christmas morning and we’d do a gift exchange and open our stockings. With Jenny gone to America for the holidays, we’d have seven here, but then another American friend of ours moved to down so we were back up to eight!
Christmas Eve came, and it was one of the times I most missed America while I've been here in Kazakhstan. My work was gearing up for the party, but it all felt empty. We were practicing a Christmas play. We were hanging decorations. But no one got it. Some Christmas traditions people here just don’t know about: caroling, mangers, Advent, mistletoe, a Christmas Story, The Night Before Christmas, milk and cookies, any songs other than Jingle Bell and I Wish You a Merry Christmas. This is ingrained in us somehow over our lives, and it was strange realizing how cultural these things are. On the walk home from work that night, one of the youth we work with tried to cheer me up. But I didn’t need cheering up, I just needed Christmas.
Then midnight came and I was excited about going to Midnight Mass. That helped a lot. It really felt like Christmas. Even Mark (who is not religious) came because he wanted to experience Christmas. And I saw AC there, who I haven’t seen in over a year. And Acela wanted to go. She’d never even been inside a church before. Even though I haven't been in a while, all the regulars who recognized me greeted me with warm, welcoming smiles. I was able to do two of the readings in order to incorporate some English into the service. I didn’t understand much of the service. Echoing Russian is still really difficult for me. And I didn’t recognize many of the song either. But it was really good to be there.
The next morning I opened up the presents my parents had wrapped and sent for me. New clothes, which I actually needed because everything I brought (literally everything) has holes in it by now. Then off to work. It’s so strange to work on Christmas. Russian lessons and then playing Santa Claus, then home to bake cookies and make frosting and other Christmas goodies for the party at work. The peanut butter cookies were a huge hit, although the frosting was pretty much untouched.
Then 6:00 and off to the party. Which is really weird, because who has a Christmas party on Christmas. I never thought of that, but usually the holiday is over by like 3:00 in the afternoon. It’s big leading up, then morning of, then it’s already over. But for us, we were celebrating Christmas night. It felt strange. And then at our party we had a Santa Claus (played by Aidos), who made the children sing and dance to get their presents. Santa Claus doesn’t do that! But it did make for an entertaining two hours. And then we sang karoeoke, because someone had Wham’s Last Christmas (how did that because the only Christmas song to make it on karaoke albums). Then home and that was Christmas.
And then the next day was Christmas Eve all over again! We titled the party a Merry Merry Cherry Cherry Rockin’ Rolly Holly Holy Zhamballin’ Christmas (MMCCRRHHZC). And we did manage to get through about three holiday classics (Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Love Actually, Die Hard). We didn’t bake cookies, but we did eat a lot of them we’d already made. And we made over 100 cards for a nursing home for New Year’s. And finished crocheting the stocking with Jamie’s help. Sadly, Laura and Chris couldn’t come because the road from their town to Taraz was closed. We wished they could have made it.
Finally, sleep and we awake with eager anticipation. Mark made us pancakes. Jessica and/or Courtney made us eggs. And we opened our stocking. Socks! Socks! Cards! American candy! Kitchen sponges! A bottle opener/finger nail clipper with a Buick emblem! Underwear with the Kazakhstani seal on them! Everything I always wanted.
Overall, it was a great three days. Tack on a really fun New Year’s Party with my colleagues Sunday night, and it was a weekend well worth remembering. But probably one of the strangest Christmases I’ll ever have in my life.