As many of you know, Azerbaijan is a Muslim country and does not celebrate Christmas. As I have learned from the people who surround me, during the Soviet era religion was altogether banned, however more secular holidays were allowed. With that, there are many similarities to a traditional American Christmas and how Azeris ring in the New Year. The last week of the year there are decorated trees, little lights, and a joyous energy of the anticipation of Santa Claus (or as he's known here, Shaxta Baba) bringing the children a gift or two. One of the more surprising areas of Azeri celebration is that young boys typically throw firecrackers, either into a large crowd or just in the general direction of anybody walking by. (This is NOT a tradition I plan on adding upon our return home.) BUT, there a handful of very popular Christmas songs here that are inexplicably sung in English. All in all, the secular American Christmas feels a lot like how the locals celebrate New Year's Eve here in Azerbaijan!
Since Christmas and New Year's was fast approaching, I decided to share a little bit about our American culture and create a party for all of my students. In preparation, we made decorations such as a paper chain, paper snowflakes, ornaments for our silver tree, and reindeer out of feet and hand cut-outs (in addition to our holiday tree stained-glass project from last month). I use the term "holiday tree" because it was not only a Christmas tree, but also a New Year tree... a little bit of cultural acceptance and integration!
For the party, my adult counterparts got really excited about this event too. They strung up lights from their own homes, helped prepare a balloon pilar, set up music and speakers, and helped prepare tea. It was quite nice to see how all generations got so excited for this party. I even had one student bring a full size cake, extra decorations and masks.
The event itself was pretty amazing, since over 45 students arrived right on time, got dressed up, brought treats to share with our tea, socialized and had FUN! It was quite an amazing feeling to be the only one in that room who knew every person there, and then encouraged this community to get to know each other more! (Of course, the groups stuck together. Yes, they are still teenagers.)
What I learned: If I let go of how I want things to go, everything works so much better! Because I was able to relinquish a lot of control of the outcome, this event became something so special to everyone involved. In general, there are a lot "parties" that are intended to be for adults or televised (which in turn can get a little stiff), but since this was only for them, these kids could be kids!
Highlights from Christmas:
- A student brought in his family's silver tree to help liven up our room
- "Hillary, can you please come to my home for O Holy Night?" An invitation from one of my students to join her family for Christmas dinner. And boy did we feast!
- "Happy x-mas to you and happy birthday to Jesus. Let the Jesus makes your life amazing, divine. Let him gives to you only good things." Another text from one of my students.
- "May the spirit of love gently fill ur heart and home in the loveliest of seasons may u find reasons 4 happiness. I wish u a Merry Christmas." A text from my Azeri teacher.
- A group of students saying this was the best party they had ever been to
Without all the hubub of Christmas advertising, I think that the Azeris in my life get it. They get the meaning of Christmas like the way I get the meaning of Ramadan. I don't know every religious component there is to know about that Muslim holiday, but I understand the intention, the openness and interest in helping a foreigner feel welcome. The Azeris in my life have made an effort to make me feel welcome in my community to celebrate my own holiday with them. My wish for the world is to have the inclusion, love and openness that my community has for me / Joey and I / foreigners / other religions / America / all the people in the world. We make a difference here. We make a difference in our own hearts and in the hearts of those we let in.
Belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!