October 31st, 2014 Sections: Calendar, Life In Kyrgyzstan, The Year in Kyrgyzstan

Metla – a traditional broom

Tonight is Halloween.

Halloween is not particularly marked here in Kyrgyzstan, although I see that several bars and nightclubs are holding special events on the theme.

Some Muslim leaders have urged people not to commemorate the festival as it is not Islamic … and I see that a politician in Russia is urging that the holiday be ignored as an American invention … (but, although many of the “traditions” associated with the festival today may well have originated or been popularized there, that’s not quite right).

Halloween has a long and involved history, and in some respects predates Christianity.  It has, for example, associations with the Wicca religion which is based on old pagan beliefs, practices and traditions.

Some of the modern, secular “traditions” are “trick-or-treat”, costume parties, decorating, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted house attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films.

The popularity of different Halloween costumes over the last five years ... published by NPR
The popularity of different Halloween costumes over the last five years … published by NPR

According to a survey of the National Rental Federation, (published on the NPR website),over the last five years there have been some changes in the fortunes of various costumes hired for the occasion.  Zombies and Batman have increased in popularity … but the popularity of Clown costumes have plummeted … as has the Fairy, which .  At the top of the list, however, each year for the last five years has been the Witch.

In a way, this seems very odd.  Children, (and adults, for that matter),  dressing up as as a character that folklore typically presents witches as evil, repudiating Christianity and practicing secret, magical arts … usually at night … casting spells and curses, and participating in lascivious and dastardly acts. Although they appear as the villain in many a fairy tale, there is also a tradition of the White Witch … and witches are variously portrayed as either remarkably ugly hags … or remarkably beautiful young women.  

Of course, Harry Potter has done much to bring a revamped image to practitioners of magic.


A stereotypical image of a witch on a old Halloween postcard.

Among the many accouterments of the witch are the “familiar”, (usually a black cat), a pointed hat … and their broomstick on which they fly through the night.


Although I have been here in Kyrgyzstan for almost twenty years, people still ask me about the differences I notice between between life here and back in the UK. I well remember when I saw a dvornik … the yard cleaner … sweeping the courtyard outside one of the apartment blocks.

He had in his hand a broom … but it the sort of broom that Mickey Mouse let loose in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Walt Disney’s film, Fantasia … a bunch of twigs bound together by twine attached to a long pole:

I was surprised because hadn’t seen one of these before – except  in films, cartoons and pictures and often associated with witches.  At the time I thought it was probably home made and they were simply trying to economize, but that was not quite true.

Although the metla, (as it is known in Russian) – in English it is called a besom), is available for sale in shops and bazaars around the country, (so the ones you see in use may well not be homemade), there are also modern, factory manufactured ones, (with a horizontal flat brush at right angles to the broomstick – a nineteenth century invention), which may be sold side by side with these traditional brooms.  It is true, however, that the modern variety may well be more expensive than their , actually, many (most) people prefer the traditional variety: “they sweep better and last longer”.  Not everyone agrees, however, one quoted in an article in the Seattle Times said, “It’s embarrassing to have to work with them … they’re so primitive.”   

The metla is possibly the archetypal original broom – indeed, it is suggested that the wood broom described a bessom made with twigs from the broom shrub, (Genitsa).  As well as Broom, however, the bristles can consist of straw, herbs or twigs of of another shrub such as Birch.  The stout pole used for the broomstick is usually Hazel or Ash.


Finally … for a bit of fun … here’s an episode of the Russian cartoon, Masha and the Medved, (Masha and the Bear … incidentally, she calls the Bear, Misha), called New Broom.  There is some speaking, and it is in Russian … but like most cartoons, I think it can be enjoyed and understood even if you don’t know the language.

It’s not my favourite episode of the forty or so episodes, but it is typical … and as I said, fun.

There’s a reference in it to one of the main characters in Russian Fairy Tales, Baba Yaga, who flies through the night on her broom



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