- - Friday, January 6, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — A new museum exhibit of ornaments is providing a glimpse of a fading tradition in this Central Asian nation — the celebration of the new year.

The glass baubles, tin animals and smiling snowmen on display at the State Historical Museum in Bishkek date from the 1940s to the early 1990s, and were donated by ordinary citizens. The decorations are for New Year‘s, a holiday introduced to Central Asia during the Soviet era.

Curators at the State History Museum, formerly the Lenin Museum, conceived the exhibit as a reminder of how far the New Year’s tradition dates back in Kyrgyzstan.

Since Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, the once eagerly anticipated holiday season — New Year’s is celebrated on Jan. 1 and Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 — is rapidly going out of fashion, particularly in rural areas and the south of this mostly Muslim country.

Kadyr Malikov, a professor of religious studies at Religion, Law and Politics, an independent research center in Bishkek, says that most Kyrgyz who have abandoned New Year’s celebrations are religiously motivated.

“The ideological vacuum, once filled with the Soviet dogma, is now being filled with new ideas and values, most of which have nationalistic roots,” Mr. Malikov says. “Countries of Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan is not an exception, are in search of national identity.

“Therefore, Sunni Islam, which is traditionally a national religion, is becoming popular … and New Year’s is not an Islamic holiday.”

More than 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population of identify themselves as Muslim, but during Soviet times, religion was largely suppressed.

Now it is seeing a revival. In the south, women wearing headscarves and men with long beards are common sights, religious books are sold on the streets, and mosques are built to cater the growing throngs attending Friday prayers.

Duyshonbek Abdyldaev, director of Sense, Soul and Imaan, an Islamic group in Bishkek, lived most of his life under Soviet rule. He considers New Year un-Islamic and a destructive force on society.

“First of all, it is not right from the religious perspective,” Mr. Abdyldaev says. “Neither the holy Koran, nor the hadiths [the sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed] tells of holidays such as New Year‘s. We are Muslims, and therefore I support those who no longer celebrate this event.”

“And the reasons for this are not only religious,” he says. “People spend a lot of money for celebrations, during which they often consume alcohol and let off expensive fireworks. It surely results in crimes and fires all around the country.”

For some Muslims like Abdyldaev, the New Year’s tradition not only is at odds with Kyrgyzstan’s Islamic heritage but sometimes borders on the ridiculous.

In 2007, a Swedish engineering firm calculated that the most strategic base for Santa Claus to make his annual deliveries would be Kyrgyzstan — a notion the country’s State Committee on Tourism endorsed enthusiastically, naming a mountain top after the bearded gift-giver and organizing a Santa-themed festival in Bishkek.

“The government announced to the whole world that Kyrgyzstan is a home for Santa Claus,” Mr. Abdyldaev says. “They wanted to make a big thing out of it. I understand that it was done to increase tourism. But what does a Christian symbol like Santa Claus have to do with our culture? Nothing.”

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