Kris Kringle should be in Kyrgyzstan.
If he is efficient, that is. The Central Asian nation, according to a 2007 study by Swedish consultants, is the geographic center best situated for his annual toy delivery campaign.
Regional evangelicals welcome his advent.
With Kyrgyzstan’s snowfall and freezing temperatures from November to April, Old Saint Nick would feel right at home in the mountainous peaks that raise the country’s average elevation to 9,000 feet. But whatever the religion of his army of elves, Father Christmas would have to adjust to Islamic customs in the valleys below.
Quick to seize on the marketing opportunity, the 90 percent Muslim-majority nation declared 2008 as “The Year of Santa Claus.”
There was eventual pushback—though seemingly confused in terms of the calendar. Frustrated with the non-Islamic revelry, in 2012 the Kyrgyz Muslims’ Religious Administration (KMRA) issued a fatwa forbidding New Year’s celebrations.
Not Christmas. Not even Xmas. The birth of Jesus reamins an official holiday.
But it is observed on January 7, not December 25. Nearly half of the nation’s 7 percent Christian population is Russian Orthodox and follows the Eastern almanac. And since Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991, the government has honored its primary religious minority with few Muslim objections.
New Year’s Day celebrations on January 1, however, are a holdover from the Soviet era. The atheistic communists banned Christmas in 1917 but in 1935 reconstituted it as a secular holiday, celebrated one week earlier. No baby Jesus, but no Santa Claus either.
The Russians instead promoted a vague ethereal figure named Ded Moroz, which translates as “Grandfather Frost.” And they kept the trappings of tree decorations, gift giving, and family gatherings. With Islam suppressed as well as Christianity, over time the Muslim peoples of the USSR adjusted to the imposed culture.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islamic authorities in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as well as Azerbaijan on the western bank of the Caspian Sea—largely left New Year’s alone. Nominal Muslims shared in the festivities, including the sharia-forbidden consumption of alcohol.
It was Santa Claus that offended the KMRA—or rather, the modern, globalized excess of consumerism. Declaring the holiday un-Islamic, the administration asked the faithful to avoid celebrations altogether and instead give to the poor the substantial sums they would have spent on frivolities.
The fatwa found resonance, but not enough to dent the market.
“January 7 is the religious holiday, but the ‘real’ celebrations of Christmas come from the West,” said Ruslan Zagidulin, a lecturer in missiology at United Theological Seminary in the capital city of Bishkek. “But these have nothing to do with Jesus.”
Not that such celebrations are unwelcome. While there is no set custom for the meal, many families welcome the New Year with the national dish beshmarbek, a noodle soup with meat. Others enjoy boiled mutton or horse meat, served in dishes with sour cream or yogurt.
Following a speech by the president, fireworks go off in Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square—and on countless balconies across the country. Children await the visit of Ayaz Ata, the Kyrgyz name for Ded Moroz, and his beautiful granddaughter Snegurochka, known as Kar Kiz, meaning “Snow Maiden.” But where the Soviets merged religious heritage into a secular New Year’s celebration, freedom…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 20, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.