Thursday, 3 January 2008

New Year in the North Caucasus

By Saida Kantysheva, Prague Watchdog

On the threshold of the New Year holiday we thought it might be interesting to find out how the arrival of the New Year is celebrated in the Russian Federation’s most Islamicized republics. For Muslims, the start of the new year will be Muharram 1429, which corresponds to January 10, 2008. It is not considered a holiday. In Islam, there are only two holidays at this time of the year – Eid ul-Fitr (which marks the end of Ramadan, and is known in the North Caucasus as Uraza Bairam) and Kurban Bairam.

Even though the celebration of the New Year is far removed from Islamic roots and traditions and many people consider it an alien or Christian festival, it has received wide recognition as a purely secular holiday among the peoples of the republics where Islam is the most important religion, forming an important date in the calendar of their year. The holiday is marked by events that are held in all official institutions, labour organizations and educational establishments. The tradition of putting up a New Year’s fir tree (or Christmas tree) is common to all the republics’ administrative centres, and is obligatory in most towns and villages. The firs are often very beautiful and elegant, and people like to gather round them and relax.

We asked Akhmed, an imam who works in one of Russia’s largest mosques,to give us his view on whether Muslims should celebrate the New Year. His reply was as follows:

"People shouldn’t put up fir trees in their homes, but it’s all right to celebrate with something special on the table, as long as there’s no alcohol, of course. If the holiday is just observed as a date in the calendar without any associations with alien religions, that is acceptable. As far as the trees are concerned, they’re all right for children, but for adults they’re forbidden. And of course the celebration of Christmas is totally out of the question. "

One might perhaps disagree with Akhmed, for if parents put up fir trees for their children they are really introducing practices that are not authorized by Islam (they are rooted in the pagan cult of the fir and Grandfather Frost), and they could easily make cracks in the formation of a child’s Islamic view of the world. Some other opinions gathered from three North Caucasus republics follow below.


On this issue Dagestan partially confirmed its status as the North Caucasus republic with the most developed Islamic way of life and Islamic traditions. Indeed, Dagestan has a large number of deeply religious men known as sheikhs and ustazy, who have a strong profile in society. Some Dagestan mountain villages observe the Shariah way of life and pursue a deeply committed Islamic faith. Yet the republic’s capital, Makhachkala, gives the general impression of a modern European city, much more so than the Ingush and Chechen capitals. Dagestan’s mountain districts also differ in the extent and intensity of the religious faith to be found there.

Views of the residents of an Avar mountain village, where Islamic traditions are widely observed:

Amina (schoolgirl, 14): “There’s going to be a New Year’s party at my school tomorrow evening, and there will be a fir tree. I’ll dance and have fun. At home we’ve never celebrated New Year. We don’t consider it to be a holiday.”

Magomed Rasul (20): “On the whole we don’t treat the New Year as a holiday.”

Some opinions from residents of a district with a less religious character:

Ramil (25): “New Year is a new date in the calendar for us. For me it’s not a holiday. We celebrate by having a nice meal. When I was a little boy we used to have a fir tree, but later on we didn’t bother. The only secular state holiday I recognize is March 8 (International Women’s Day in Russia).“

Akhmed (26): “Of course I’m going to celebrate New Year. It’s a holiday. I’ve already put up our fir tree. People in the village are celebrating and putting up trees.”

Ruslan (resident of Makhachkala, 31): “You don’t feel much of a holiday atmosphere here. We’ve already had our holiday. The New Year is just that - another new year. I don’t really see it as a special holiday. It’s ok for the children. But it’s not really a Muslim holiday, and in general I think people see it as a kind of Christian celebration – it’s Christmas, really. In Makhachkala there are fireworks, I’ve even bought some myself. And in the countryside people do celebrate, but why would they put up Christmas trees when they’re surrounded by them in the forest?"


Mikail (28): "We celebrate the New Year almost as they do in Russia. A lot of people gather on the square, they dance the lezginka, play the accordion. There’s usually a fir tree, but it’s put up on New Year’s Eve and taken down again the next day. People are afraid, because it’s dangerous there, especially when there’s a crowd. Though things are a little less tense now, so I don’t know what it will be like. In Russia the New Year’s tree stays up for a long time. People don’t have trees at home, it’s not considered right. The elders don’t allow it. It’s not a Muslim festival. Some people observe it, and others don't. I do."

Marieta (49): We don't treat it as a holiday. It's not a Muslim festival, it's an All-Russian one. But there's always a New Year's tree in the school - the children dance round it, enjoy themselves. The Muslims have two holidays at this time of year. I like the New Year, I think it's great, I like the New Year's tree and all the celebrations, but we don't have any celebrations at home, and we don't have a tree, either."

Chechen Republic

Sheikhi (45): “We treat the New Year as a holiday. But I don’t think we’ll be celebrating it much. I’ll get the children a fir tree, because they like it. There’s a huge fir in the middle of Grozny. I’ve been there to see it.”

Zelimkhan (24): “It doesn’t bear any relation to Islam. It’s just another day like any other. It’s only New Year by the Christian calendar. But I sometimes celebrate it with my friends, though it doesn’t have anything to do with religion. It’s just an excuse to get together. A fir tree is all right for the children, but we don’t have one at home.”

Thus, in the Islamic societies of the North Caucasus, the New Year has no religious connotations. It is simply a break in the daily routine, giving some people the chance to relax, spend some time with their families or entertain their children. Others who more strictly follow the observance of the Shariah way of life reject it altogether. For many, however, the New Year represents the start of something new. It is a hope for the future.

(Translation by DM)

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