Novruz in Azerbaijan

Novruz is a celebration of the Lunar New Year which, according to Persian tradition, signifies the arrival of spring. It has both Iranian and Zoroastrian roots, although similar festivities have also been traced back to the Sumerians and Babylonians. In 2009, the Novruz holiday was inscribed onto UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The name of the festival derives from the Persian words for “new” (now) and “day” (ruz). Novruz is held on the spring equinox, which depending on location falls between March 19 and March 21. The date falls on March 20 in Azerbaijan, although many countries celebrate on March 21.

Celebrating Novruz was discouraged while Azerbaijan was a part of the USSR, but beginning in the 1990s, the holiday was again elevated to a level of great importance. In 2006, the government passed a law which grants employees five days off of work over Novruz, making it the second-longest Novruz celebration in the world, after Iran.

The fact that Novruz is Azerbaijan’s most significant holiday is apparent in many ways. Preparations for the feast start a month in advance. For four consecutive Tuesdays, Azerbaijanis pay homage to the four natural elements of earth, wind, fire and water. Each element holds a different symbolic meaning and plays a role in the return of spring.

On Water Tuesday (Su Chershenbesi), people head to springs and streams to fetch clean water, believing that it will ensure the wealth of their household. Many jump across flowing creeks to cleanse their sins, and family members sprinkle each other with water before going to bed.

On Fire Tuesday (Od Chershenbesi), Azerbaijanis jump over a bonfire, which symbolizes purification. These leaps indicate the leaving of troubles and hardships behind. Later, people take ashes home to scatter across their gardens in the hopes of increasing fertility.

Wind Tuesday (Yel Chershenbesi) is dedicated to visiting relatives' graves to clean and prepare them for Novruz. People gather under trees and call the winds by shouting, "Yel Baba!" or "Wind Father!" If the wind blows "in response," and the branches touch the ground, their dreams will come true.

Earth Tuesday (Torpag Chershenbesi or Ilakhir Charshanba) is the final and most important of the four Tuesday celebrations central to Azerbaijan’s Novruz holiday. Seven types of food are prepared, all with names starting with the letter "s." Fires are kindled and the herb rue thrown into them as protection against evil, while ashes gathered on this day are sprinkled in all four corners of the house. Candles are lit for each family member, and the person whose candle burns the longest can expect their wish to come true. In the evening, young women approach mirrors while holding a candle, believing that in the light they may see the reflection of their future husband. Children play papaqatdi, a game in which they throw their hats in front of neighbors' doors before knocking and running to hide. Someone living in the house is then expected to fill the caps with sweets.

The khoncha, a large silver or copper tray that Azerbaijanis fill with traditional sweets and dried fruits, plays a unique role during Novruz. Each snack placed on the khoncha has a symbolic meaning: Baklava represents the sky and stars, gogal symbolizes the sun, shekerbura the moon and colored eggs, life. The khoncha's center is decorated with a green, sprouting wheat called samani and tied with a red ribbon. Burning candles, one per family member, are then placed on the edges of the tray.

Novruz is a family holiday, with relatives gathering on the eve of Novruz to celebrate together. The khoncha is set up in the middle of the table, where it remains throughout the festivities. There should be at least seven dishes at the feast, with the rice dish plov being the most important. Yet all during Novruz, the doors of Azerbaijani homes remain open as a symbol of hospitality. On the first day, homes must also be lit throughout the night to ensure good luck in the coming year.

The Novruz holiday is also a time for mass gatherings and public festivities. Folk concerts are held across the country while street performers such as tightrope walkers, wrestlers (pehlevans), and fortunetellers perform for the crowds. In rural areas, horse races called chovqan are also organized. Another notable aspect of Novruz in Azerbaijan is a traditional comedic performance focused on the conflict between Kosa, an impersonation of Winter, and Kechel, who symbolizes Spring. The play always ends with the victory of the latter.