Merry (belated) Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Eid, New Year, and whatever else you may be celebrating! The holidays have been treating me pretty well here in Kazakhstan. The last week has been a flurry of baking, cooking, dinner parties, and hanging out with fellow volunteers celebrating our first Xmas in Kaz away from family and friends back home. Kazakhstan has such a mix of nationalities and traditions…Russian holidays, remnants of Soviet holidays, Kazakh national holidays, country-wide patriotic holidays, etc. etc. There is Independence Day Dec.16-17, our Christmas Dec. 25 (though that’s not the one they usually celebrate), New Year’s Eve Dec. 31, Russian Orthodox Christmas Jan. 7, and Russian New Year Jan. 13. As you can imagine, not much gets done these couple of months! For Kazakhs, as in many other parts of the Soviet Union, New Years is actually the biggest holiday. The hilarious thing is that all of our typical Christmas trappings have been adopted for New Years: Santa Claus (fondly called “Дед Мороз,“ or “Grandpa Frost”), gift-giving, Christmas trees (called “yolkas”), and an abundant amount of snowflake and tinsel decorations on every corner. Not that Christmas is really that religious in the U.S. either, but accomplishing a complete secularization of the holiday here by transferring it to New Years is almost certainly a remnant of Soviet times when religion was (to put it euphemistically) discouraged. What is even more funny here though is the combination of these commercialized Western Christmas products with elements of the East…everywhere you turn, there are little toys for the Chinese Year of the Tiger! Take a look at this beautiful hybrid for yourselves:
So, to celebrate American Christmas on the 25th, Phillip and I single-handedly started what became a cookie baking sweat shop factory, churning out hundreds of little candy canes, bells, stars, snowflakes and gingerbread men and women before we got lazy and started cutting out circles. 😛 Curious about how we managed this feat here in Kazakhstan? Here were the steps:
1. Find ingredients. Sipra and I scoured the stores for everything we needed, and I ended up finding all of the gingerbread spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves) in our beloved Ramstore. They even had little packets of green and pink dye that we later used for frosting. God bless Ramstore. After many trips to different little shops, we also found packets of powdered sugar and coconut, as well as M&Ms and little dried fruit candies for decorating. I was also armed with real chocolate chips and vanilla extract brought from America by Haibo. Success!
2. Find cookie cutters. We doubted there would be any Christmas cutters at the local bazaar, so we went the PC way – improvisation! Phillip and I printed out Christmasy shapes from the internet, and I bought a plastic folder at the local office supply store. We traced the shapes onto the plastic, cut them out meticulously, and placed the shapes on the rolled dough, cutting around them with a knife. Ghetto, but it worked!
3. Bake the cookies. Since the oven at my house is about two feet wide and very fickle (you have to turn on the gas and throw a match in, whipping your hand back before it roars up like the flames of hell, and most likely crisping the batch of 10 thin cookies that will fit on the tiny pan into a blackened clump in 5 minutes flat), we decided to go to Phillip’s house instead. After much measurement converting guesswork (cups? grams? liters? what??) and the help of the trusty Peace Corps Volunteer cookbook, we had successful batches of REAL gingerbread, sugar, and chocolate chip cookies!
4. Share the love. We baked batches for Women’s Club, Miras English Club, Phillip’s little sister to take to school, both our host families, the local apartment rental guy, and the village volunteers that had come in for Christmas. Whew…mazel tov!
[Baking insanity, cookie decorating with Womens’ Club, Phillip as Ded Moroz and me as mys-ELF…ha!]
Christmas Eve, the Shymkent Kaz-21s (Sipra, Phillip and I) had a fun sleepover at my place. We probably stayed up til 5 a.m. talking, and sorry kiddies, no pitter patter of reindeer hooves was heard on this side of the globe. Maybe Santa was jetlagged from the time difference. Christmas morning though – surprise!! – a present was in fact waiting for me up in the top drawer of my closet. I had put it there of course…a beautifully wrapped gift from my mother (also brought by HaiboJ). She called and I opened it while on the phone with her – a beautiful red holiday sweater and matching jewelry from my aunt. Thank you!!
The menu was amazing: fried rice (described by Phillip as “Chinese plov,” to expedite local understanding. Plov is a popular Uzbek dish that is basically like fried rice, with carrots and meat), peanut noodles with green onions, two delicious roasted chickens (one teryaki, one butter/salt/pepper), garlic green beans, potatoes, and two kinds of salad. After dinner we sang Christmas carols, and even did a gift exchange! Two other volunteers were up for Christmas from a nearby village called Zhetasai, so we had Kaz-21 Secret Santa, and the gifts I daresay were quite amazing. With a cap of 500 tenge (3.33 dollars), we managed to get lovely gifts like a scarf, a Kazakh vest, local souvenirs, hand-made greeting cards, and an entertainment set of games and cards. We spent the rest of the night playing Durak (the most popular card game hereabouts in this part of the world), and Mafia with our host families. 😛 After a long night of food coma, we slept in the next day and went ice skating. A very merry Kazakh Christmas, indeed! 🙂
Happy holidays…miss you all.
PS: For the best holiday poem ever (in English, Russian and Kazakh!), check out this gem on Kyle’s blog!