New Year’s Eve, Kazakhstan Style

In honor of New Year’s Eve, here’s a Deleted Scene of my first New Year’s Eve in Kazakhstan.  But this version is from my very first draft, it’s in present tense, and it’s actually from one of the many emails I sent home to those “108 close, personal friends.”  It’s a good memory for me and gives a little more insight into my relationship with our first host family, Hadija, Mamluk and their four kids.



Hadija in winter



New Year’s Eve is like none I’ve ever known before, with small bursts of the familiar, as well.

Back in Zhezkazgan, before we left, and again when we reached Almaty, we see many decorated artificial trees looking not unlike ones we’d see at home. They are not Christmas trees, of course, in this Muslim country; they are New Year’s Trees. Even if the Russian Orthodox Church were larger, their Christmas does not fall until January. No; these are New Year’s Trees.

Here at Hadija’s there’s no tree. In fact, there’re no decorations of any sort around her home. Perhaps in other years there have been, but not this year. We watch a lot of Moscow TV with holiday programming, holiday commercials, and holiday costuming — white fur trim over anything red. All the ads are holiday related, pretty girls with white fur collars and very short red skirts, singing the praises of the product of choice. There’re holiday songs here too and I’m beginning to recognize “Snovum godum” as the traditional holiday greeting.

The Kazakhstani Santa Claus is a grandfather who, along with his granddaughter, delivers presents. No elves or reindeer, no sleigh bells or chimneys. This grandfather Santa comes to the front door and knocks to gain entrance before leaving the gifts.

What I’m really enjoying this holiday season is the absence of the constant Christmas music that plays incessantly from just after Halloween. At home, by the time Christmas comes, I’ve often grown weary of it.

Here in Hadija’s living room, the TV is on and we’re all watching Russian comedy. The skits remind me of old Milton Berle or Sid Caesar routines. The language is irrelevant; the humor is in the costuming, the facial expressions, and the slapstick. Two large men are dressed as Russian babushkas, grandmothers: clunky shoes, cardigan sweaters askew, hose fallen down around the ankles of one, oversized glasses on the other. Although the pace of the humor seems slower than at home, I find myself chuckling now and then. Not the loud guffaws I hear from Hadija and Mamluke, but I can see the humor.

They prepare a huge meal on New Year’s Eve, twice. About seven o’clock, we eat the regular dinner, ploff (rice pilaf) with tomatoes and cucumbers. I make an apple pie in the afternoon, a first for the family, though they’d had my apple crisp often last summer. Apples are plentiful still, I know how to find cinnamon, kuritsa, and I make the crust from scratch. No Pillsbury crusts in the dairy case here. They say my apple crisp is better than the pie and there’s something in the way they tell me, they mean no offense and I take no offense. It is simply a fact — and maybe a hint they’d love to have apple crisp again. I vow to make one tomorrow and this time I’ll teach them the amounts.

We brought maple syrup with us — part of our regular care packages from home — and plan to make them a pancake breakfast in the morning.

“I wish I had the Vermont video with us, to show them how syrup is made,” I say to Woody. In September, Woody’s roommate from long ago, Peter Thoms, sent us a video of his adopted state; I use it often in my classes. There’s a segment showing the sugaring process: tree tapping, collecting and boiling the sap, and bringing it all to market.

“Can Dina bring it?” Woody asks, thinking ahead to our visit with the family after IST.
I call Gulzhahan on my ever present cell phone and ask if she can get it from the college and take it to Dina. “Of course” is, of course, her answer. Dina will bring it with her when she comes to Almaty on the fourth of January. We’ll figure out how to meet up after she gets here — again, cell phones.

Curiously, I receive almost a dozen text messages on my cell phone throughout the evening. I didn’t even know I had text messaging. Colleagues and students back in Zhezkazgan wish me, “Congratulations on the New Year.” Many are much longer. I return the first few, but stop after the fifth. After ten of them, I turn my cell phone off.

At midnight we go outside to watch an enormous fireworks display literally overhead. Huge explosions of light go off all three hundred sixty degrees around us, as far as I can see. Everyone has fireworks — not firecrackers, fireworks – and sets them off at midnight. No community fireworks display here; if they could afford a fireworks display, they’d be able to afford sewers. I’ve lived in Hudson, Ohio, where one of the local businesses, American Fireworks, feels it their civic duty to impress the townsfolk. I’ve also lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where the lengthy displays are choreographed to music. I’ve seen impressive fireworks displays. This one has them all beat. It gives me a sense of what Francis Scott Key must have seen in Baltimore Harbor, when he wrote “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” I keep saying to Hadija, “This would never be allowed in America. Fireworks are dangerous. There could be a fire.” And she just laughs.

These are anything but choreographed. Some go off way too low. Many are high up, spectacular, really. But others go off behind me and low and I startle, yelping, making everyone laugh even more. I go inside until it’s over.

“You know,” Woody later reminds me, “all the houses have metal roofs.” I admit I’d forgotten this. “It would be difficult, with snow covering everything and most of it frozen, for a fire to start.” I wish he’d said something earlier. I might have toughed it out.

Following the fireworks, there’s a second full meal. Woody and I are up past midnight and eating and we live to tell about it!

We serve our special pancake breakfast at one o’clock New Year’s afternoon.


How about you? How will you celebrate New Year’s Eve this year?



8 Responses

  1. marianbeaman
    | Reply

    Lucky you to have so much material to share with the readers, including this deleted scene with so many cultural similarities and differences. And you got regular care packages from home – another nice touch!

    How we will celebrate New Year’s Eve? Food and fireworks too with most of the food waiting until New Year’s Day evening: many of our guests are still flying home from travels. Happy 2015, Janet.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I am lucky, Marian, in so many ways. I hope to pull these scenes together into a little ebook in 2015. Which reminds me, Happy New Year. Thanks for being here.

  2. Joan Rough
    | Reply

    Janet, What fun to hear about that New Year celebration. You write wonderfully about the similarities and differences between this yearly event all over the world. Not a fan of noisy celebrations, I would have gone inside too.

    Bill and I celebrated our New Year, peacefully at home and even went to bed before midnight came along. I’ve always celebrated the New Year in September, when school starts up again. I loved school as a kid and going back after a long, hot summer was so exciting. I continue to honor that time of year.

  3. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Oh, Janet, how I love these deleted scenes. They are so vivid and rich in detail. I can almost taste the maple syrup and experience the fullness after all those meals. You bring me right there. What strikes me the most is how I can feel the love and strong bonds of friendship you and Woody have forged with these gentle,caring people. Your eBook will be a winner. What a great idea.

    As far our New Year’s Eve, quiet and peaceful by choice. I won’t even tell you what time I fell asleep. 🙂 Wishing you, Woody and all a Happy, Healthy 2015. I hope we can pull off a reunion.

  4. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Thanks for the follow today, Janet – see you soon!

  5. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    This reminds me of a New Year in Togo, many years ago now although it seems like only last week.
    My house in Lomé was about three hundred yards from the sea, overlooking the Ghana border. This was no more than a cactus hedge with large gaps in it, on the other side of the road. My neighbours over there were concrete block makers, cobblers and a variety of artisans with small workshops, who came and went across the border with impunity and no checks, despite the fact that there was an official frontier crossing just down the road, near the beach. That had customs and immigration offices on both sides, and a smart red and white pole across the road on a hinged mounting.
    I had invited a number of guests to celebrate the New Year: working friends, people from other development agencies and a number of local African friends. Together we had and enjoyable dinner party. As the New Year approached one couple with small children at home decided they ought to leave and then our numbers seemed a little thin.
    Something needed to be done to liven up the party, so I got out my bagpipes. That scared off another couple, and suddenly there were only five of us left in the house. The house was actually a flat, the upper story of a building which had my office, a store room and a car port underneath and a small garden around it. It had a good wide balcony that was an ideal venue for a gathering, and from which we could see down the street and across the border.
    Being a Scotsman I have always celebrated New Year, wherever I’ve been in the world, and almost always properly dressed in my kilt too. This was no exception, although in the steamy tropical heat I didn’t bother to put on my formal black evening jacket.
    When midnight arrived, I blew up my pipes and played Auld Lang Syne. It was like magic. People poured out of the houses across the border, with bottles in their hands, wove their way between the cacti and headed across the road. Neighbours from houses on the Togolese side came round and in minutes the house was full of laughing, merry people, brandishing drinks, passing round more food that miraculously appeared. The party went on till well after dawn, and even some of the guards from both sides of the frontier crossing came and joined in.

    That was a New Year to remember

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ian. What a great story. I love the image of you in the tartan, playing the pipes. I’ve recently discovered my Scottish roots and am looking forward someday to getting over there (Lanark) for some overdue geneology. Thanks for stopping by and adding such a vivid image to my collection of vivid images. 🙂

      • Ian Mathie
        | Reply

        Lanark is now a much changed town. It used to be heavy industry, with a major steelworks and all sorts of heavy engineering works. since the closure of the Ravenscroft steelworks all that has gone and it is now light industry and service industries that occupy the people. There has also been a major new building initiative which has replaced much of the old housing stock over the past twenty years. Lanark is just next door to where my grandfather and great grandfather grew up and lived – around Wishaw and Hamilton – although before that the family were further north, in the highlands. Our ancestors were pushed out during the highland clearances, some going to Canada and New Zealand, the others coming to the Clyde valley.
        There’s lots to see and discover. Do come over!

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