It is an annual tradition in Uzbekistan. As December creeps toward its end, a joyful mood descends, people begin to reflect on the 12 months passed and ponder what awaits. And then the squabbling begins.
There are two, clearly marked camps in the battle over the New Year’s holiday. Conservative Muslims contend it un-Uzbek and unacceptably secular. Their opponents cannot see the fuss, insisting that the day is just a good chance to have fun and let off some steam.
But a couple of weeks ago, well-known and respected theologian Abdulaziz Mansur made an important contribution to breaking the impasse with a filmed sermon in which he decreed that marking the arrival of January 1 is not, in fact, a violation of religious canon. Anybody who described the holiday as sinful is ignorant of Islamic principles, he said.
His intervention may help take the sting out of a debate that has been roiling for more than a decade.
Uzbekistan officially began to celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1, 1948. Around a week before, Soviet authorities had designated the first day of the year as a holiday, and so a whole raft of customs were given life. The decidedly un-Islamic drink of Soviet Champagne would be accompanied in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic by piles of festive plov.
Many of the rituals differed little from those observed in the capital, Moscow. The arrival of midnight was ushered in by the chimes of the Kremlin clock broadcast on television. City squares were decorated with trees laden with lights, tinsel and baubles. Ded Moroz, the Slavic world’s answer to Santa Claus, and his helper Snegurochka entertained the children. Classic films – most notably the much-loved 1976 comedy The Irony of Fate – were dubbed into Uzbek and shown on local TV.
A lot began to change with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Religious families gradually phased out the practice of celebrating the new year, which was deemed both a Soviet leftover and a feast with Christian overtones. In actual fact, Christians in the Orthodox world celebrate Christmas on January 7, but the Soviet regime coopted much Christian symbolism for their secular New Year’s holiday.
The government also got in on the party-pooping act. In December 2004, Anvar Zakirov, head of the Tashkent city hall department of public education, issued instructions to stop holding end-of-year parties.
Zakirov argued that Uzbekistan should instead mark the spring holiday of Nowruz – itself a pre-Islamic tradition. Any other holidays are contrary to Uzbek culture and should, therefore, be scrapped, he said.
New Year’s trees accordingly disappeared from secondary schools, although many elementary schools in Tashkent defied the prohibition as teachers were unwilling to deprive their charges of a long-awaited holiday.
One kindergarten teacher, who spoke to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity, recalled the year that they had to keep the tree hidden from sight.
“Some classes secretly celebrated the new year. It is difficult to explain all this to children. They memorize poems and get presents from Ded Moroz. And parents too feel the joy and want to celebrate with their children,” the teacher said.
In December 2012, the authorities slapped a ban on Ded Moroz and Snegurochka, as well as some other ancillary seasonal characters, such as the witch of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga. The arguments made then were familiar: these are not traditional Uzbek characters and do not reflect the local mindset.
The suggestion made at the time was to replace those figures with characters from Uzbek folktales. But while there is a rough local equivalent to Baba Yaga, there is no figure quite like Ded Moroz.
So it was that the New Year’s cast of heroes had returned within two years, in no small part thanks to a fatwa promulgated by the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Uzbekistan. The decree stated that celebrating the new year is “permissible from the point of view of common sense and sharia law.”
The devout have stuck to their positions, however.
Atabek Melibayev, whose father is a mullah in a village in the Ferghana Valley, remembers that his family last celebrated the holiday in 2004.
“But the very next year, my father said that there would from then on be no more trees or feasts. At the time, I could not quite understand why our father had suddenly banned the new year. Then my mother said that for Muslims, Nowruz is the real new year,” Melibayev told Eurasianet.
Not everybody is so doctrinaire.
“My father is also a believer, but we always celebrate the new year at home with a tree and a festive dastarkhan [meal]. The only thing is that our dastarkhan features no alcohol,” said Javlon Ermarov, a resident of Kokand.
Bakhtiyar Babadjanov, a renowned scholar of Islam, said that the debates about religion are largely superfluous in any case as the New Year’s holiday has long shed its religious overtones.
“It is simply that some zealous Islamic leaders need to exploit all this to convert their coreligionists and sow division among the public,” he told Eurasianet. “That way it is easier to influence them and lead them. The end justifies any means.”
Babadjanov noted that in some Middle Eastern nations, such as the United Arab Emirates, the custom of putting up seasonal trees has caught on unhindered.
“But we are slipping back into the Middle Ages,” he said.
As with so many other changes, the loosening of the proscriptions is attributable to the more relaxed style of rule ushered in by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power in 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov. In a fashion similar to the Russian president, Mirziyoyev delivers a televised New Year’s greeting on December 31, in Uzbek and Russian.
Beruniy Alimov, a university lecturer in Tashkent, argued that there could no longer be any legislating the new year.
“If somebody doesn’t want to mark the new year, that is their own business. But this category of people should not impose its views on others. The world is pluralistic, and it should be the same in Uzbekistan too,” Alimov told Eurasianet.