Christmas in Kazakhstan is a time of family gatherings, almsgiving, prayer, and cleansing of one’s mind and soul.
Because Kazakhstan’s population is prevalently Muslim, Christmas isn’t as widely celebrated as in western countries.
However, local Christians celebrate one of the most important religious holidays of the year by indulging in delicious food, singing festive hymns, decorating their homes, and attending church services.
Many Kazakh Christmas traditions resemble Russian customs but don’t lack eastern culture peculiarities. For example, local food is similar to that in neighboring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Christmas in Kazakhstan was banned during the Soviet Era, yet local Christians have preserved their faith despite the prosecution and devotedly celebrate Jesus’ birth every year.
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When is Christmas Celebrated in Kazakhstan?
Unlike people in western countries who celebrate Christmas on December 25, Kazakhs celebrate in after New Year, on January 7.
The difference in dates arises because most Kazakh Christians are Orthodox, primarily Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians, who belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate.
Eastern Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar. Back in the day, everyone followed the Julian calendar, proposed by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., but in the 16th century, Pope Gregory Xlll proposed reform to stop the calendar drift.
The Catholic Church accepted the reform, whereas the Orthodox Church didn’t. Later, some Orthodox church branches also accepted the Gregorian calendar and started celebrating Christmas on December 25, albeit with different traditions.
However, the Eastern Orthodox Church continues celebrating religious holidays according to the Julian calendar. In daily life, Eastern Orthodox Christians use the Gregorian calendar.
Some Kazakhs are Catholics or Lutherans and celebrate Christmas on December 25 like Americans. But because over 70% of the country’s population are Muslims, Christmas isn’t a significant holiday in Kazakhstan, especially Catholic Christmas.
Orthodox Christians observe the Nativity Fast for 40 days before Christmas. Initially, Nativity Fast and Advent were the same traditions, marking the preparations for the birth of Christ.
The tradition stems from the fifth century when monks in France would fast every day of December until Christmas. Later, Catholics switched from fasting to lighting candles in an Advent wreath and praying.
Orthodox Christians, however, have stuck with the ancient tradition. Kazakhs refrain from any temptations for the Nativity Fast period, including indulgent food, alcohol, smoking, and other bodily desires.
Nowadays, Nativity Fast isn’t reserved for monks and doesn’t require complete fasting. Most people refrain from meat, oil, and dairy. Simply put, Orthodox Christians become vegans for 40 days.
Most importantly, people strive to cleanse their souls from bad thoughts. They practice praying, repentance, and almsgiving, helping those in need. The most dedicated Christians go to church every day.
Nowadays, the Nativity Fast tradition is rapidly losing popularity, particularly among young people. However, even those who don’t observe the Nativity Fast for the entire 40 days fast on Christmas Eve until the first star appears in the sky.
Orthodox Christians believe that the first star appearing in the sky symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem that rose when Jesus was born, fulfilling the prophecy. Only after night arrives can Kazakhs begin the Christmas feast.
Christmas Food in Kazakhstan
Despite cultural differences between the west and east, food is integral to Kazakh Christmas celebrations like anywhere else in the world. Because meat may be too heavy for the gastroenteric system after 40 days of fasting, many families serve fish on Christmas Eve.
The most common Kazakh Christmas food is koktal, smoked fish topped with roasted vegetables, and karma, boiled fish with noodles smothered in butter.
However, meat dishes are a staple of Kazakh cuisine, typically made from lamb or beef. Kazakhs don’t eat stuffed turkey or ham for Christmas but prefer traditional Kazakh food such as plov, besmarmak, kuyrdak, and syrne.
Plov is essentially rice with lamb meat made in qazan, a large cooking pot from cast iron widely used in eastern countries. Kazakhs cook plov with a mix of spices and finely chopped vegetables.
Besmarmak is a must-try for any tourist in Kazakhstan, served at every feast. It’s made with boiled meat served on thin noodle squares, topped with broth and onions. Kuyrdak is roast lamb meat served before besmarmak.
Syrne is fried lamb served with onions and potatoes. Real syrne is made from a young lamb and is exceptionally tender. Another delicious Kazakh Christmas dish is laghman, a stew made from noodles, lamb or beef, and vegetables.
No Kazakh feast is complete without manti, steamed dumplings filled with minced lamb meat and served with sour cream and butter. Occasionally, manti are stuffed with potatoes or other vegetables.
As appetizers, Kazakhs often serve kurt, dried sour milk balls with salt and pepper that perfectly fit any meat dish. For dessert, Kazakhs prefer shak-shak, dough fried in oil and mixed with honey.
Another traditional dessert is made from a mix of cottage cheese, millet, sugar, butter, and raisins, resembling halva. Fermented milk drinks are an all-time Kazakh cuisine staple, but many locals prefer vodka or cognac for Christmas.
Christmas Decorations in Kazakhstan
Christmas in Kazakhstan isn’t a nearly as significant celebration as in the U.S. because of a relatively small percentage of the Christian population, so you’re unlikely to encounter entire neighborhoods decorated with glistening in fairy lights holiday characters.
However, local Christians decorate their homes. They put up Christmas trees adorned with colorful baubles, tinsel, angel and star ornaments, and fairy lights.
Major city municipalities put up large Christmas trees on center squares, and some shopping malls and other public places set up festive displays with the local equivalent of Santa and his granddaughter, snowmen, and reindeer.
Kazakhs customary use white tablecloth for Christmas feast, symbolizing the cloth Mary used to wrap baby Jesus when he was born. Candles represent Jesus as the light of the world.
Many families decorate their Christmas tables with straw, representing the humbleness and simplicity of the place of Jesus’ birth.
Many perceive Kazakhstan as a country with a hot climate, and summers in Kazakhstan are indeed warm. However, in winter, Kazakhs get to experience a real white Christmas. Snow undoubtedly adds a unique feeling to Kazakh Christmas, exuding the festive spirit.
Snow is common in Kazakhstan in winter, although it’s usually light. In the country’s north, snowfall lasts for approximately 100 days of the year, and in the south, it may be limited to 20 days.
So, Kazakh children can not only look at festive displays with snowmen but also build one themselves. Locals enjoy sledding, ice skating, and skiing in the surrounding mountains.
Gift Giving Traditions
Exchanging gifts for Christmas isn’t as widespread in Kazakhstan as in the U.S. and other western countries. For Catholics, Christmas without gift-giving isn’t complete, but for Orthodox Christians, it’s optional.
Kazakhs may exchange gifts with their immediate family, but not always. Kids usually receive modest gifts for Christmas but large ones for New Year. This phenomenon has a simple explanation.
Orthodox Christians don’t typically exchange gifts for Christmas because they don’t see how they are related to the birth of Christ. They consider gifts more appropriate for Epiphany, commemorating the Three Wise Men who brought Jesus gifts from the east.
Furthermore, Soviet officials banned Christmas in Kazakhstan for several decades. As a result, the holiday didn’t become as commercialized as in the west.
Many Kazakhs considered New Year a more significant holiday during the Soviet Era, which isn’t surprising considering they could be punished for celebrating religious holidays.
Christmas celebrations were usually quiet and solemn and remain such, focusing on religious aspects rather than gifts and partying.
Kazakh kids don’t get gifts from Santa Claus. Kazakh Santa Claus is known as Ayaz Ata and is more similar to Russian Grandfather Frost. He is a fictional winter god created in moonlight arising from Turk mythology.
Modern-day Ayaz Ata wears an ornate blue robe and a fur-trimmed hat that doesn’t have a pompom but resembles ushanka, a traditional fur cap with long ear-covering flaps.
Like American Santa, he has a long white beard but is typically tall, fit, and serious, rather than plump and jolly. He doesn’t carry a sack of toys but walks with a scepter helping him cast magic.
Ayaz Ata is accompanied by his granddaughter Kar Kiz or Snow Maiden. No one knows where Snow Maiden’s parents are and whether she’s Ayaz Ata’s real granddaughter, but she helps him make lists of good and naughty children and distribute gifts.
Snow Maiden wears a long silver-blue ornate coat and a snowflake-like crown. Before Ayaz Ata and Snow Maiden give children gifts, they request them to recite a poem or sing a song.
Like most Christians, Kazakhs attend church services commemorating the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass in Kazakhstan isn’t much different from anywhere else in the world.
People gather with family on Christmas Eve, wear their best attires, and head to the nearest cathedral to listen to hymns and pray. The Midnight Mass usually ends after midnight.
Only after returning home from the church can Kazakhs start the feast. However, some people skip church and watch the service on television. Many people also attend church service on Christmas morning.
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