The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

One of the most remarkable aspects of cultural life in Tajikistan is the way in which layers of history and tradition intersect, bringing together ancient and modern, religious and secular, always with family and community at the heart of any celebration.

In early November, Tajikistan celebrated Idi Qurbon, a Muslim holiday which remembers Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Tajikistan, traditional celebrations honor both family ties and sacrifice. Guesting, both visiting friends and family and receiving guests, stretches across several days surrounding the holiday. Each house prepares a dasturxon, a table covered with treats for anyone that might happen to pop by. For my host mother and sisters, the week leading up to Idi Qurbon was filled with cleaning house, trips to the bazaar for fruit and honey, and endless baking: cakes, cookies, meat-filled sambusas, and pastries of every shape and sort. After the flurry of eating and guesting subsides, families return to their homes to tidy up, digest, and discuss the holiday goings on: who put out the best dasturxon, who did or didn’t come by, whose recipes we should ask for. The other side of the Idi Qurbon message, sacrifice, is symbolized in the communal sacrifice of a sheep or goat; in my family, as in many others, this task was taken up by our grandfather, so that all generations could gather under one roof to share in the feast.

As a cold and rainy autumn has given way to a crisp and sunny winter, signs of another important holiday are cropping up throughout the city of Dushanbe. Come December, first-time visitors to Tajikistan might be surprised to find themselves in a city dressed to the nines in familiar holiday colors and characters:  bushy-bearded Father Christmases, jolly snowmen, holly and tinsel, and, of course, lots and lots of twinkling neon lights.

During the Soviet period, celebration of the religious holiday of Christmas and all its trimmings were reoriented into secular and more ideologically acceptable New Year’s festivities; both modern and traditional families in Tajikistan continue to celebrate New Year’s with many customs bearing a strong resemblance to our own American Christmas. Relatives travel from near and far to gather around a special holiday meal on December 31. The last several weeks of December are spent shopping for the perfect gifts to put under the tree for friends and family, and the stores and television channels even advertise “holiday sales.” The city of Dushanbe erects a giant Christmas tree in the central square each year, and residents wait in anticipation for its lighting.

This weekend, I accompanied my host family to the bazaar to select a Christmas tree of our own. Echoing my own family’s yearly Christmas preparations, my host mother pulled a box of decorations down from the attic, a cacophony of beautiful, store-bought “nice” ornaments, tacky gifts from years past, and school projects and handmade decorations accumulated throughout 25 years by children and now grandchildren. The tree was topped off with hand-sewn garlands of chestnuts and dried mulberries, much the same way that my sisters and I used to thread together strings of popcorn for our tree. I even persuaded my host family to break out “Ирония судьбы” (The Irony of Fate), a more chipper Soviet equivalent of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that many Tajik families watch on New Year’s Day. While any study abroad experience should be built upon new experiences, exploration, and discovery, these familiar, comfortable moments with family and friends also serve to remind us of our human connections and commonalities.

By: Margaret Sullivan

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Fall 2011

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