Welcome, Spring! or, How Novruz is celebrated in Azerbaijan

So, the big spring holiday comes,
Everybody is already waiting for you!
Welcome, Novruz and all its friends,
Novruz Bayram has come to Azerbaijan!                Navruz in Baku

One of the most ancient holidays in the world is the holiday of Novruz – a holiday to celebrate the New Year; the first day of spring. Scientists estimate that this holiday has been celebrated for over 3700 (and perhaps up to 5000) years. In ancient Babylon this holiday was celebrated on 21st of Nisan (March, April) and lasted for 12 consecutive days. Different rituals were followed on each of the 12 days. There is much information about Novruz as a pre-Islamic holiday in classical eastern literature and scientific works by authors such as Firdousi, Rudaki, Avitsenna, Nizami Gjandzhevi, Saadi, Hafizi. Translated from the Persian language, Novruz literally means “new day,” and in Turkic countries the spring holiday was called, “Turan”. Customs connected with the celebration of the Novruz holiday such as, jumping through fire, collective dancing called “Jally” and mass entertainment games have been found depicted in rock drawings found at Gobustan (A town in Azerbaijan, 60 km to the south of Baku. The drawings date from the 12th millenium BC), which is considered one of the most ancient centres of a world civilization.

Azerbaijan possesses rich traditions connected with Novruz. People during previous centuries preserved their ancient traditions, transferring them from generation to generation.

In Azerbaijan, a month before Novruz, every Tuesday there are Su, Od, Torpag and Ahyr chershenbe  (literally: “Tuesdays of Water, Fire, the Earth and Last (before holiday)”) celebrations. According to national legends, on the 1st Tuesday, water and water sources are renewed and start moving; on the 2nd Tuesday, fire; on the 3rd, earth; on the 4th, wind; All of these foretell the arrival of spring. Each of the four Tuesdays is therefore devoted to one of these elements.

Azerbaijan – is the Country of fires and possesses rich traditions connected with fire, which is considered a sign of clarification and freshness. Fire is one of the main attributes of Novruz and its flame has a cleansing action. In the sayings and songs of Novruz fire represents itself as the devourer of harm and all illnesses – jumping through a fire, people leave all bad things to the expiring year. Before Ahyr chershenbe, the last Tuesday before Novruz, fires are lit, and everybody, irrespective of age or sex is expected to jump above them. People must jump seven times: either seven times over one fire, or one time over seven fires. Fire is never extinguished by water. It is left to go out itself and young boys and girls collect its ashes and throw them out far away from the house. It signifies that all the failures of the people who have jumped through the fire will leave the house along with the ashes thrown out.

One more tradition of Novruz is the reconciliation of all quarreling people personifying a victory of good over evil. It is considered a sin not to forgive those who recognize they are at fault.

For unmarried girls who have not found happiness, people throw “black” (copper) coins in a clay jug filled with water in the afternoon and in the evening before a sunset. This water is poured away together with the coins from the roof of the house onto the street. It means that all “black” coins – a sign of misfortune – are thrown out far away from the house so that the “doors of happiness” become open.

It is generally expected that people should rise early on the first day of the New Year. Where possible, people try to go to the river or a spring: they wash and splash water against each other – after all, water is a symbol of cleanliness and freshness. There everyone wishes each other a happy and prosperous New Year. It is said that on the night of the last Tuesday before Novruz all the rivers and streams stop to admire this and even the trees bend towards the earth. If somebody drinks this water on New Year’s eve, next year he will be immune to illness.

The last day of the old year (March 20th) is celebrated in Azerbaijan as the «day on the eve of a holiday» or «a holiday the day before» («bayram ahshamy») the New Year. Youth on “Bayram ahshamy” (holiday evening) listen to what people behind the doors of houses are speaking about. If they hear kind words, this means that everything will be good, if people speak about bad things – it is a bad sign. Children and teenagers throw their caps to the doors of strangers, knock and run away. It is considered necessary to fill the caps thrown by the children with sweets, dried fruits and fresh fruit. The peak of Novruz is when the old year hands over its powers to the New Year. According to ancient tradition, at this time people shoot their guns and rifles into the air in honour of Novruz. The Dutch traveler, Adam O’Leary, who visited Azerbaijan in 1637 wrote the following: “The astrologist, defining the height of the Sun with the help of an astronomical device and a sundial, at the moment of connection of day and night, declared: ‘New year has come’. Volleys of tools sounded at that very time. From city towers and fortifications music was heard. So the holiday of Spring has begun.” In the XIXth century, Russian traveller Nikolay Dubrovin wrote also wrote: “In Azerbaijan the approach of spring was announced by volleys of tools in the cities and villages”.

One of the traditions of Novruz is the burning of the grasses of “uzerik” (a plant named ruta), which protects from the evil eye and negative energy. Children, the house, cattle and pets are purposefully covered with its smoke. According to folk custom, at the moment of the approach of the new day of the new year it is necessary to leave the house and stay in the yard or, to make a wish facing an open window. One of the ceremonies of Navruz, which has remained until today, is connected with cattle breeding. The horns of bulls, milking cows and rams are wrapped with a red material. During Novruz it not permitted to kill horses, animals, even snakes.

In the morning of a holiday it is important to eat something sweet, for example, honey or sugar. In the evening people pour pure water into a jug, and each member of the family throws into the jug any item they choose. After this the jug is taken outside and placed facing the direction of Kibla (Mecca). If there is a patient in a family suffering an illness, a spoon is taken and people beat at the doors of neighbours. The neighbour, having heard the sounds, is obliged to submit by giving sweet cookies or money. If it is food, it must be given to the patient; if money, then products are bought for that money and food for the patient is prepared from these products to promote his healing.

One obligatory custom of the holiday is “syamyani” – a dish that uses freshly sprouted grains of wheat. To make “syamyani”, a handful of wheat, symbolizing abundance and a prosperity, is presoaked. This ritual is accompanied by a song “Syamyani (“store me”), I will raise you annually”. The preparation ceremony is called syamyani toyu (“wedding of syamyani”) and is accompanied by ritual songs and dances.

Azerbaijanians give particular attention to a festive table. The main attribute of Novruz – a festive table – should be decorated by seeds, plov, colored eggs, nuts, dried fruits and the main sweets – pakhlava and shakyar-bura. On the table there should be seven dishes, beginning with a letter “s”, and also sumah (a dried barberry), vinegar, milk, syamyani (a sweet soup from wheaten malt with a flour), syabzi-plov (plov with greens). Original symbols of the holiday are the sweets of a sheker-bura (rich pies with a sweet nut stuffing and spices), pachlava (a flaky pastry filled with nuts, filbert or almonds mixed with granulated sugar), shor gogal (a puff flat cake with a spicy stuffing), pakhlava (a puff flour product with a nut stuffing), feseli (oil flat cakes), kulcha (rich spicy sweet bread) and halvah from syamyani (sprouted wheat).

In the evening all members of the family gather at a celebratory meal. On the table a mirror is placed, and on either side of it burning candles, corresponding to the number of members of the family. The candles are left to burn out; one can’t blow them out: if somebody blows the candle out then it is said that the life of someone from the family will be truncated. The candle and mirror symbolize light and clearness, which preserve people against misfortune. On the table there should also be bread, nuts, almonds, milk, cheese, fish, a vessel with pink water and green colored eggs. A drinking bowl with water, in which there must be a green leaf, and also national dishes are also to be present. And, of course, the Koran should be on the table as well.

Traditionally, on the first day of the holiday all the members of the family should be at home. As people say: “If you aren’t at home on the first day of Novruz, you won’t see your house for seven years”. On the first day of Novruz the lights must be switched on all night long – burnt out fires and turned off lights are the sign of misfortune. On Novruz, it is traditionally possible to define, how will the coming year pass: the 1st day of Novruz is considered the spring; the 2nd – the summer; the 3rd – the autumn; and the 4th – the winter. If the first day is without wind and rain, it means, that this year will be successful for agricultural pursuits; if there is wind it means that the whole spring will also be windy. In other three days people learn in the same way, how the summer, autumn and winter will pass.

There is another custom that is celebrated, which is to plant a tree on Novruz. According to folk beliefs planting the trees of tut (mulberry), fig (fig) and chestnut on Novruz is a good sign.

Interestingly, statistical data from the law enforcement bodies of Azerbaijan shows that in days of Novruz the quantity of crimes made in the country decreases sharply. The reason for this is believed to be the result of moral foundations that have passed test by time. During Novruz untidiness and disorder is judged as bad manners, and therefore order and cleanliness is introduced into people’s houses.

Azerbaijanians name the second day of Navroz as the day of “ata-baba” that is “fathers-grandfathers” (parental) and these days it is accepted to visit the tombs of relatives with the whole family.

The holiday of Novruz is accompanied by various ritual games: “Hydyr Ilyas” (a symbol of fertility, blossoming), “Kos-kosa” – an entertaining yard game (a symbol of arrival of spring) and a guessing game. Celebratory fun is connected with games and the dramatized actions.

In Novruz people carefully lend money to each other, because they are afraid of not having prosperity in their house. At the same time there is an unwritten custom – to present people a celebratory “share” (Novruz payu) during the days of spring holiday. Celebratory delicacies, syamyani, candles and honcha are put on a tray and sent to neighbours and friends. This tray mustn’t be returned empty, because according to folk beliefs, the house will lose prosperity.

One more tradition that extends from ancient times is that the youth make fires in mountains at night and stay awake till the morning. This custom is called “the Sun Meeting”. Till dawn the young men sing the song of “Goduhan” all together.

Azerbaijan – is a multinational country where people of various religious faiths live side by side. According to established tradition, other people living here, along with Azerbaijanis, also wait for this holiday with keen interest. It is important that suitable gifts are therefore brought for both Azerbaijanis and other nationalities and religions.

Celebrations come to an end on the 13th day of Novruz. All should leave the house or go out of town and to spend all day with nature. By doing so they will be released from the superstitious hardship of the number “13”, which Azerbaijanis consider unlucky. The 13th day of New Year comes to an end with ancient games – jumping with camels and horses, various youth and childish sports and competitions in which men participate equally with women.

It is known that eventually people lose their old holidays, celebratory traditions and that ceremonies change. It can often seem that the big list of obligatory elements of Novruz should be  lost nowadays. However, it is not so. The ancient holiday of spring – Novruz bayramy – is a public, significant and most beautiful holiday of Azerbaijanis. Between 1920 and 1962 the Soviet power forbade Novruz, considering it as vestige of archaism. Therefore Novruz was celebrated informally, and, despite the interdictions, each Azerbaijan family still celebrated this holiday. This allowed these traditions to be kept and transferred from generation to generation. Since 1962 the authorities have started to celebrate this holiday as public holiday.

Since 1991, when Azerbaijan became an independent country, the celebratory actions have gained more attention. The head of the state addresses the people with congratulations and announces a number of new policies and actions. In order that families may spend time together 7 days are granted as national holidays with time off. The towns and cities celebrate together and put on events that are enjoyed by tourists as much as by the locals.

AuthorAkhmedov Sabuhi Ahkmed ogly.

Diplomat, at the Embassy of the Azerbaijan Republic in Republic of Uzbekistan supervising questions of cultural and scientific cooperation. The author is a candidate of historical sciences with a PhD in history. He has authored and co-authored 12 books and more than 100 articles on the history, culture and heraldry of Azerbaijan.