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Traditional Celebrations with Agasshin

Asel, Sonya, Dari, and Aku shooting for Agasshin, 2020

Agasshin is a beauty zine on the life of ethnic minorities in Russia founded by Sonya Jung Shin Ahn. It presents unique stories of people whose voices have long been drowned out by everyday racism and xenophobia. For our holiday special, the participants of Agasshin project spoke about their traditional New Year celebrations. 

Anara

Nauryz is a traditional Kazakh New Year celebrated at the end of March. Nature is believed to be awakening from hibernation around this time, which marks the beginning of the entire year. In its mood, the holiday bears some resemblance to the celebration of American Thanksgiving: the whole family gets together and lays a festive table with numerous dishes, dastarkhan. In Soviet times, the holiday was banned because it was considered religious, although in fact Nauryz is not related to religion at all: it is rooted in the cultures of nomadic and semi-nomadic Turkic peoples. 

Beshbarmak (a dish of boiled horse meat and noodles) and baursak (fried yeast dough used as bread) are a must among Nauryz dishes. But the main holiday dish is Nauryz kozhe. This is a chowder of seven indispensable ingredients: water, meat, salt, butter, flour, wheat, and milk. They stand for seven life principles: happiness, wisdom, luck, wealth, health, heaven’s protection, and rapid growth. 

The preparation of this dish is very simple: the grain and meat are boiled separately and then mixed with the other ingredients. But each housewife has her own Nauryz kozhe recipe. Someone prefers to replace wheat with another type of grain, others add meat broth to the milk. My mother, for example, likes to add qazi—boiled horse meat sausage, which is also a national dish. 

Usually the whole family gathers together for Nauryz—even grandparents from distant auls. Usually in every family there is someone who can sing or play national motives on the dombra—ancient songs that have been passed on from parents to children for centuries. While listening to them, you can feel the connection with your people.


GErl

Kalmyk New Year is Zul, and the festive table is its most important component. In our family, among its dishes there is always Kalmyk tea, bortsoks, and some kind of meat-based dish. 

Brewing Kalmyk tea is quite simple. You need to bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add tea leaves and milk to it, and reduce the heat. When the tea boils again, put some oil in it. I like strong tea with its color similar to that of a latte. 

Bortsoks are like pies without filling. They are made from yeast dough and fried only in animal fat (vegetable oil spoils their taste). The best bortsoks have always been made by my mother—they are delicious, soft, and golden-crusted. I love eating them with condensed milk. 

Typical bortsoks are ribbon or knot-shaped but for Zul we make them a special form: for example, round ones with little cuts in the sides that symbolize the sun and are called celvg. Also, on holidays we eat camel or ball-shaped bortsoks—those are called havtha, which means “bugs.” The latter were my favorite ones because of their crunchiness. 

The first treats are an offering to the Burkhans, that is, to the deities. Early in the morning, families put food on the altar with lanterns and little Buddhas and take turns saying Buddhist prayers. As a child, it looked like something funny to me, similar to making wishes. 

My vivid memory of Zul is concerts where children from dance schools performed Kalmyk songs. Unfortunately, I do not remember their lyrics because I do not know Kalmyk. The USSR policy and the deportation of Kalmyks undermined the preservation of our culture and language.


Vyacheslav (I)

Zul is celebrated according to the lunar calendar, so the date is never fixed. This year we celebrated it on December 10. For Zul, people usually light lamps: in Kalmyk, the name of the holiday actually stands for “lantern,” and in the Buddhist world it is known as the Festival of Thousand Lanterns. 

Kalmyk tea, a traditional Zul drink, is closely related to the history of the holiday. Kalmyks call this tea “деедсин идән,” that is “divine drink.” According to legend, the founder of the Gelug Buddhist school, Je Tsongkhapa, once fell ill and the doctor advised him to take this drink in the morning. On the seventh day, which coincided with the 25th day of the month of the leopard according to the lunar calendar, Tsongkhapa was cured. On this occasion, he ordered the believers to light a lantern for the Burkhans, add one year to their age, and brew themselves the same healing tea.

A special evening ceremony is held on Zul. In Kalmyk houses, an age lamp is prepared from dough and bunches of wild rye or wheat are inserted into it according to the number of the family members. When it gets dark, all these bundles are lit, and everyone should bow and say the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra. By doing this, we ask the Burkhans to give us one more year of life. So Zul can be considered the birthday of all the Kalmyks.

Zul is a family holiday, so my most vivid memory of it is connected with the way our old people said holiday good wishes—yoryali. They sounded magical and incredibly beautiful:


Җил болhн Зулан кеҗ
Насан авч, сән сәәхн бәәҗ
Авсн насн өлзәтә болҗ,
Насан авсн бидн цуhaр
Гем-зовлң уга бәәҗ
Бат кишгтә болҗ
Көгшдин наснд курч
Амулң-менд бәәцхәй!

So that we celebrate every year, Zul,
In the same way, with many happy years to come,
May these years be numerous and joyful,
Just like all of us, who make them last longer,
So that we live without disease and sorrow,
Enjoying happiness, and
May we be in peace and health! 


Usually, Zul is not associated with singing. But when my great-grandmother was alive, on Zul our house was enveloped in ut dun—a drawn-out song making everyone feel a mysterious longing for the endless steppes. Another childhood memory is about my great-grandmother moving her rosary beads in the dim light of the lamp, while praying to the Buddha in Kalmyk and closing it with the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra. A quiet whisper that wishes all the living beings to get rid of suffering.


Vyacheslav (II)

For the Buryats, the New Year is Sagaalgan. This holiday is celebrated according to the lunar calendar, usually at the end of January or February. Shortly before the holiday, people thoroughly clean their houses and get rid of old things. Two days before Sagaalgan in datsans (Buddhist temples) a ritual of purification (дүгжүүбэ) is carried out: believers wipe their bodies with pieces of cloth or dough as a sign of getting rid of impure thoughts and then burn them. 

Sagaalgan itself does not come at midnight, but at dawn, when the goddess Балдан Һама descends to earth. Thus, on Sagaalgan we always get up really early when it is still dark to have time to prepare to welcome her. From six to eight am there are always live services broadcast from datsans with prayers made in the honor of the goddess. On the first day of Sagaalgan, visits to older relatives start, some of which can last as long as the entire month. On the second day,  we hang hii morin ritual flags with the names of family members on special poles as a ceremony aimed to bring good luck in the coming year. 

Dairy products are usually consumed on Sagaalgan. In the past, along with meat, they used to be a part of the Buryats’ main diet, also offered to the spirits of their ancestors in various shamanic rites. In addition, buuzas are a must on our table—something similar to dumplings. Their recipe is simple: you need to knead a tough dough on water and eggs, roll out and cut circles out of it with a mug. Put ground pepper, salt, and finely chopped onion into the ground beef with a little addition of pork. Wrap the minced meat in the dough, pinching the circle edges that a hole forms at the top. Buuzas should be steamed for 20-25 minutes.


Diana

I was born in a Tatar family, but we live in Bashkortostan. We celebrate the New Year on December 31st, and this is my favorite holiday. As a child, I, like everyone else, wrote letters to Father FrostFather FrostAn analogue to Santa Claus in the Russian-speaking tradition. and put them under the Christmas tree looking forward to getting presents. But my Father Frost was actually Kysh-Babai—the name used by Tatars. Moreover, we also celebrate the traditional Tatar New Year—Navruz, the day of the vernal equinox, usually around March 21st. 

On Navruz we eat balish—a big pie. My nyaneika (grandmother) made it from giblets and buckwheat. But for such a pie, you can use any meat with potatoes. Baursak is an indispensable festive element. This is a “big brother” of chak-chak, another Tatar dish, but baursak is usually larger and contains no honey. It is made from unleavened dough, which is cut into small round, oval, or square pieces and deep-fried. Also among the festive table dishes there is gubadiya—a round pie stuffed with rice, red cottage cheese (kyzyl eremchek), minced meat with fried onions, chopped eggs, dried apricots, and raisins. There is also an unsweetened version of gubadia that has no dried fruits.  

On our holidays, I always turn on New Year's playlists from Apple Music, but my parents adore Tatar music. They often play records with it my kortotay (grandfather) used to collect. We play records for hours on end, and all the holiday we run back and forth to the record player to change them.

Here’s our mini-playlist of Tatar music: 

Zaki Makhmutov “Yeizen Ayaz Tandarynda
Farida Kudasheva “Кyr Каzy”, “Gyulbakcha”
Alfiya Avzalova “Hatfa”, “Tombyek”
Gulsum Suleimanova “Kubelegem”, “Ilchi Baga”
Roza Sakhautdinova “Umyrzaya”, “Zulkhiza”
Ilgam Shakirov “Kandyr turynda zhyr”, “Menerga ide Ural taularyna
Magafura Saligaskarova “Gulsesek”


Dinara

I grew up in the Tatar city of Bavly situated on the border with Bashkortostan. We have many national holidays associated with the change of seasons. For example, karga botkasy (or “crow’s porridge”) is a celebration of the meeting of spring. On this day, people used to cook wheat, millet,or barley porridge for a festive outdoor meal. The porridge leftovers were to be fed to birds. Of course, there was also Sabantuy—a holiday that marked the end of spring field work and the beginning of summer. It is also celebrated outdoors: with a fair, treats, and various competitions. 

But the new year for us begins on December 31st, the same as for many peoples in the CIS. Only instead of Father Frost we have Kysh Babai (“Winter grandfather”), and instead of the Snow Maiden—Kar Kyzy (“Snow girl”). In addition to Olivier salad, on the New Year's table we always have traditional Tatar dishes: for example, balesh (closed meat pie with potatoes) or echpochmaks (triangular meat pies). A baked duck or pike is often served—I have seen this only in Tatarstan. A variety of festive dishes is very important for any Tatar holiday, as well as the number of guests: all the relatives gather at the table, including second cousins ​​and grand-nephews. 

An important part of the holiday is dancing. For me, New Year's music is something from the repertoire of the Bashkir singer Salavat and Verka Serduchka’s songs, which my grandmother loved very much. Everyone danced to this music. The older generation dances, stamping their feet so that the floor starts shaking—a tradition that has to do with Tatar national dances, where dancers usually move their arms smoothly, at the same time quickly beating the rhythm with their feet. Tatar elderly ladies are actually very dashing dancers and only those who are over seventy do not join the circle, but simply sit and watch others perform.

 

Аlina 

I am not a big fan of the conventional New Year. But besides it, in Kabardino-Balkaria we celebrate another one—on the day of the vernal equinox, March 21st. This is the day when the earth awakens after winter, and in the past it was believed to mark the beginning of a new calendar year. I think the focus on the change of the seasons had to do with farming. But our family and those we know have orchards, so this celebration is something that has developed historically, something I know well, it is a part of the local culture. It is a pagan holiday, so now, due to increased Islamization, it is celebrated much less often.  

On March 21st, the main festive dish is a black chicken, which is sacrificed, cooked in a creamy sauce, and eaten with wheat-corn porridge. This porridge is called pasta, so no one in Kabardino-Balkaria uses this word for [original Italian] pasta. 

I don't eat meat, so most dishes are excluded from my menu, but there is one that I have adored since childhood—lakums. These are sweet fried tortillas that look a bit like crumpets. On March 21st, they are made round, in the form of the sun, and presented to neighbors. Mom, of course, makes the best lakums in our neighborhood—small and steamy golden pieces of delight . . . Their smell waking me up just in time for breakfast is my best childhood memory. 

My younger brother was born on March 21st, so we celebrate both the spring and his birthday. Everyone thinks he was very lucky to be born on this special and happy day. Since childhood, he has adored the song “Sinyaya Ptitsa (“The Blue Bird”) by Mashina Vremeni band, we sing it together and fool around. For me this song is closely connected with this day, although it has no special relation to the holiday.


Alice

5781, according to Hebrew calendar, began in September. My family did not do anything special on Jewish holidays, so I began celebrating Rosh Hashanah as an adult. When I was twenty five years old or so, I started building relationships with different aspects of my culture in accordance with my views and sticking to the Left Yiddishism perspective. 

Yiddish is the language of Ashkenazi Jews (not to be confused with Hebrew!). 

Rosh Hashanah is one of the most important Jewish holidays, it lasts three days. The idea is connected with the fact that God judges people on the first day of the month of Tishrei, so we must repent for our mistakes made in the past year, in the hope of forgiveness in the new one. I am an atheist and my Jewishness is cultural, not religious. For myself, I took God out of this story and was left with an excellent holiday of self-reflection and hope for the best in the coming year.

This new year started for me in a company of friends who had never celebrated Rosh Hashanah before. As a language and culture activist, I became their guide to the world of secular celebration. We had traditional vegan dishes on our festive table: round challah (sweet bread shaped like a braided round loaf), pomegranate, and apples with honey (maple syrup actually played the role of honey). Sweet dishes symbolize the hope for a sweet, good year, and the pomegranate or apple stands for the cycle of life. According to the tradition, we need to blow the shofar (a ram’s horn), but finding its vegan substitute was not an easy task! 

There was a funny situation related to our challah. The bread was already on the table, and I left the room for a minute. When returning, I found out that it had been cut in half with a knife, just like a pie! But challah has to be eaten with your hands, you need to take a piece off it for yourself, but the guests who were present there did not know this. In the end, it all went on fine! And I am already looking forward to the next New Year!


Masha

For the Yakuts, it is not the New Year that bears importance, but another holiday dedicated to the change of seasons—Yhyakh. It is celebrated mainly on the summer solstice day in a special place outdoors, but the date actually varies by region. Yhyakh is the day of nature’s rebirth and our main national holiday.

On this day, you need to drink koumiss—a traditional drink made from mare's milk. It is drunk to quench thirst, but also as a part of rituals, when feeding fire and earth. Traditional Yakut cuisine includes a wide variety of dishes from foal and beef meat: khaan (blood sausage) and giblet soup. We also eat kurchekh (whipped fat cream with berries), and salamaat (fried milk with flour). But making these dishes will be difficult since all of them need ingredients that are almost impossible to find outside Yakutia. 

Yhyax looks like a big music festival. We always travel there every year with the whole family— sometimes even with a tent to stay at the celebration for the night. There are always many different activities practiced during Yhyakh: for example, my dad and I like watching horse races and Dygyn's games (sports program), while together with my mom I enjoy musical performances. My special love is performances with khomus—the Yakut jaw harp. The performers play it simultaneously with throat singing producing a very accurate imitation of the sounds of different birds and animals. Also, on Yhyakh people always dance a circle dance ohuokhai, something like a round dance and a choir song. It is started by the singer, who sings about everything that happens around, and everyone else echoes him.  

The coolest thing about Yhyakh happens at night, when it gets chilly and you feel like eating some giblet soup near the fire and taking part in the ceremony of welcoming the sun to stretch out your palms towards it and listen to algyschyt, accumulating the energy for the whole year.


Kseniya

My mother is a Russian and my father is a Soviet Korean, I spent my childhood in Uzbekistan, and then moved to Russia, so our concept of New Year is somewhat vague. We happily celebrate both Catholic Christmas (following the Korean tradition), New Year, and Christian Christmas. Both my brother and I are baptized, like the Russian part of our family, my Korean dad is an atheist, but this does not interfere with the celebration at all. Then we celebrate Old New Year, Eastern New Year (my father calls it “Korean”), and finally the Uzbek New Year—Nauryz. So, we end up having six months of celebrations.

We celebrate these holidays with our family, at a large table. We focus on New Year, Christian Christmas, and Eastern New Year, for the others we can simply cook, for example, Uzbek pilaf. My father is in charge of the pilaf, his version of the dish turns out the most delicious, it is a real one. Moreover, pilaf in Uzbekistan is made in different ways, depending on the region. We have Fergana pilaf, which Abdulov cooked in Makarevich’s old Smak TV cooking show. 

On New Year itself and on both Christmases, we stick to the standard menu: salads and something hot. The Russian part of me makes me really love potatoes, while my father cannot live without rice, which he usually replaces any type of bread with. On the same festive table, we can have Korean, Russian-Korean, Uzbek, and Russian dishes. 

Our family respects ABBA, Queen, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles, as well as songs from the early 2000s TV programs like Old Songs About the Main Things. I am the only person who knows Korean songs and I only listen to doramas OSTs. These are the only connections I seem to have kept with my ethnic homeland.

Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich