You’re guaranteed a white Christmas in Astana. By the time December 25th rolls around, the city has usually been blanketed in snow for about a month—no surprise in the world’s second coldest capital. Soon after the snow settles, however, a surprise does show up: hundreds and hundreds of Christmas decorations, blinking and glittering and glowing on streets and buildings across the city.
“You hear you’re moving to a Muslim country and you think, ‘OK, well, I’m just going to have to live without Christmas decorations,'” said Cindy MacNeel, an American who has lived in Astana for three years. “And then, surprise—they celebrate New Years, and it looks just like Christmas! … I think it’s lovely.”
Astana loves to decorate in all seasons. The city administration lays flowers in massive beds across the town every summer; “I love Astana” blinks across bridges in the weeks leading up to Astana Day in July. And for Christmas and New Year, they go all out with lights and trees, neon green wreaths, Santas and sleighs and giant blinking snowflakes. By the first week of this December, more than 50 Christmas trees had been erected around the city, strung with lights and hung with ornaments.
There’s a 25-meter tree in front of the president’s residence, the Akorda. The main boulevards have Christmas-themed arches stretching across every block—some with glowing ornaments and holly, others with stylized presents and sleighs. It may get dark before five, but there are fairy lights, neon trees and maybe even a Santa to light your way on almost every corner. No reindeer, though—in Kazakhstan, horses pull Santa’s sleigh. Of course.
“I love it. To come from America and the major cities that have street decorations—I fully expected not to see anything [here],” said MacNeel about her first year in Astana. “So I was kind of sad about that. And then, come December … theres Christmas trees going up, and I even saw Santa every once in a while, and I thought, ‘What on earth?'”
The decorations come as a surprise to most visitors to this predominantly Muslim, yet secular Central Asian country. They’re even a bit of a shock for some Kazakhs. “We were just driving by and we saw [the tree],” said Lyazzat Sagdinbekova, 37, of Astana, who stopped with her family in front of a big tree and some oversized presents on Saryarka Avenue. “We’re from Astana, but our grandmother is from Karaganda, so we decided to stop and take some pictures. The tree is beautiful. It’s really interesting for the kids.” Many families make a point of driving around the city and stopping and posing in front of all the best decorations.
“They’re fun,” said MacNeel. “And they’re great landmarks. ‘OK, so turn left at the gigantic pink and white Christmas balls,’ you know?”