The festive season is upon us in Baku. I hesitate to use the word Christmas as it is very much a minority religious occasion here but nevertheless, it is easy to confuse familiar signs of a London Yule with those of the local New Year celebrations. Adverts on the radio are playing tunes like Jingle Bells in the background, a huge yolka (conical fir tree comparable to a Christmas tree) has sprung up in front of the Park Inn hotel and other decorations are sprouting across the city centre.
Curiously, the jolly, red-suited character known in Britain as Father Christmas/Santa Claus is also an established part of the New Year tradition here. In Azerbaijani he is Shakhta Baba, in Russian Dede Moroz (both roughly translate as Grandfather Frost) and he is reportedly a product of Soviet times. Similar to how Christmas was particularly placed on the calendar in Britain, this symbolic man was apparently placed by the Bolsheviks on the thirty-first of December to help provide a popular focus for mass celebrations without encouraging an obvious religious angle.
Nowadays Santa’s rounds could last a fair old time in this part of the world: with Christmas in late December for many Christians, then New Year’s Eve, followed by both Russian ‘Old New Year’ and Russian Orthodox Christmas falling in early January. No wonder the character I saw at Saturday’s office party looked so skinny – even Santa needs a gym regime now. A shame he could not put it to better use that night.
The occasion was the Sangachal Terminal Christmas and New Year Party: a sprawling affair held at the suitably large Baku Entertainment Centre. Events started with drinks and buffet around a large indoor pool area while off-shoot entertainments included access to the ten-pin bowling alley. An immediately adjacent function room had been prepared for live performances, speeches, dancing and so on.
An Elvis impersonator with a great voice but major presentation issues (hand-on-heart, he was wearing an Argyle sweater) had preceded the speeches, after which the MC stepped up and introduced the next act with great fanfare. The lights went down, slow, atmospheric synth-music was cued and the stage dressing suddenly fluoresced as we switched to ultra-violet lighting. Two young women dressed in black and white (of course) made an under-whelming entrance and the bubble show began.
Yes: a bubble show, in the dark. I have seen some talented people do some terrific things with bubble mixture in the past and they have all done it under bright light; something to do with the lovely rainbow colours you can see in the shape of bubble maybe… Quite why these performers decided to use black light I don’t know but it made their work near-futile as you could barely see anything. Perhaps they should add some tonic water to the mixture…?
The duo on stage did their bit for what seemed like an eternity while we all stood miles away from the action round the edges of the large dance-floor. It was probably no longer than five minutes but with the audience-performance dynamic running close to zero, time stretched. When the music suddenly switched from atmospherics to a banging disco beat you could sense the room crawling back from the edge of the abyss.
Diminutive fellow as he was, ‘Santa’ came bounding on, hand-clapping over his head with almost enough conviction to make us think things were going to improve. When he headed for a two-foot diameter disc on the dance-floor which I had watched someone pouring liquid into earlier: I had visions of fire. Alas, it was merely a jumbo-size bubble hoop designed to en-bubble a volunteer standing on the disc and it did not work very well at all; even in the dark. I may have felt a twinge of sympathy.
Pocket-sized Santa and his two helpers soon withdrew. Quite what they would have been saying to each other back-stage post-show is anyone’s guess. With luck “let there be light” might have been mentioned.