This is country which knows no Christmas, and yet they celebrate New Years in many ways similar to our Christmas. The home of my host family has been modestly decorated, with streamers, balloons, and a little tree. Even in the main intersection of town, there is a large tree which has been hoisted with lights and decorations. Mingechavir often looks like it is preparing for Christmas year round, since it is known as the “City of Lights,” and not unlike Paris, it has decorative fountains and street lighting, which make the town particularly attractive at night. But homes are not lit-up with outdoor lights, like in the States this time of year. However, just like children in the States, Ibrahim (7) and Farida (9) were anxiously awaiting to see if there really is a Schachta Baba, who is supposed to come on New Years Eve. (And he DID come, with chocolate treats for the children) When the children asked me if he comes to America, I told them that in America children await Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Farida said she didn’t think he was real, because kids at school said he was not. Then the mom asked me for some help in explaining that Schacht Baba would really come. We discussed that since America is so big, Santa must rest up, and then he is ready for Russia and all the other countries which used to make up the Soviet Union, including of course Azerbaijan. During the Communist Soviet times, great focus was placed on celebrating New Years (perhaps to remove emphasis on Christmas, a Christian holiday) throughout the Soviet Union, and to this day, New Years is an important Azerbaijani holiday.
We spent all day cleaning and cooking. I helped prepare the Paklava (pretty delicious), and the Paytaxt (Capital) Salad, as well as the Nar (Pomegranate) Salad, and also the grape-leafed dolma stuffed with minced meat and the special saffron rice with fruits (Plov) and beef stew with chestnuts. It was the first time I had ever hand-peeled pre-soaked chestnuts and couldn’t help but hum “Chestnuts Roasting by an Open Fire” the entire time. Every item prepared was quite time-consuming, like peeling the chestnuts, as was cooking the carrots and then dicing finely, just one of a variety of ingredients which must each be separately prepared before mixing into the Paytaxt Salad (we would have probably opened a can of already cooked and diced carrots in States)—in fact, for much of what we cooked, in America we would have resorted to simplifying the processes with some prepared items, but as in most Azerbaijani homes, here there are no canned foods, no packaged or processed mixes—everything is prepared from scratch—everything! So it helped to have some extra hands for the peeling and dicing, the mixing and the cooking—and once again I was reminded that one reason I never became much of a cook is because the time-consuming nature of all these preparations actually causes cramping in the hands and aching in the back…but it was fun to learn and to help Vusala, the mom in my host family.
The father in the family went outside to grill the meats. Any grilled meat is referred to as Kebab, and if it is skewered, it is shaslik. We had grilled chicken, grilled lamb, AND grilled beef tongue. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but when they held it up to show me before it was grilled, I must have made quite an unpleasant face, since they all laughed, yet assured me it would be tasty. The outdoor markets have been swarming for the past week with people buying up for their New Years Eve feasts. Even the neighborhood market had a turkey tied up to a post in front of the shop, in case that might appeal to someone for New Years Eve dinner. But the calf tied up in front of a butcher shop surprised me, though not as much as the cow head that was hanging skewered on a rack near the entrance to the shop the day before. It might even been that cow head that supplied my host family with the beef tongue we consumed as part of our New Years Eve feast.
The week leading up to New Years was full of school celebrations. One of the local secondary schools invited me to their celebration, since the entire event was in English! The news even came to film it. All the songs, poems, dialogue—everything was performed in English, even several scenes from Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet! But the dancing santas and angels were certainly the most darling! The university, too, had quite a celebration with a fancy reception at a very elegant restaurant, often used to host wedding celebrations. The first year students performed what I had taught them—a poem about New Years, Jingle Bells, and Auld Lang Syne. It was a big hit.
On the 28th and again the 30th we all gathered round the TV set for the big New Years lottery drawing for a new car—either a Honda Accent or a Land Cruiser. The father in my host family bought each of us a pair of lottery tickets. Ibrahim was particularly excited, since he felt for sure one of us would win…and since the family does not have a car, winning one would have been nice. But alas, no car, and it would have been awkward—had my ticket won—since Peace Corps policy prevents us from operating any motorized vehicle during service—I could have never driven it! On New Years Eve near-by relatives of my host family came to help enjoy the feast and enjoy the celebrations. We popped some of the balloons, and inside where little slips of paper that Farida prepared—mine said ‘sing a song’, and so I did (Jingle Bells), and Ibrihim’s paper dictated that he perform a dance. In fact, we all danced—Azerbaijani-style—which is a form of middle-eastern dancing. At quarter to mid-night, the president of the country came on TV (ALL channels) to give his New Years Eve address to the nation. We went outside to shoot off the fire-works, as did certainly every other family in Mingechavir, from what I could tell. And the safe-guards of “Safe and Sane” fireworks is a concept not in force here. I retreated to the cover of the porch, as some of the fire crackers and rockets did not seem too reliably safe to me. But it was quite a show! I shared with them the Christkindlstollen and cookies from Dalmayr’s in Munich, which Sascha so thoughtfully sent me—many thanks! And they gave me a lovely wool sweater to keep me warm in my cold office room…what a thoughtful family, what kind friends!