Novruz in Azerbaijan
Novruz in Azerbaijan is the most colorful, festive celebration of the year. Novruz marks the Lunar New Year which, according to Persian tradition, signifies the arrival of spring. The holiday has both Iranian and Zoroastrian roots, although similar festivities have been traced back to the Sumerians and Babylonians. In 2009, the Novruz holiday was inscribed onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
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 the location, falls between March 19 and March 21. Although most nations celebrate Novruz on March 21, in Azerbaijan the main festivities are held on March 20.
Novruz celebrations were discouraged while Azerbaijan was a part of the USSR, and it was only in the early 1990s that the holiday regained its national status. After the government passed a law in 2006 that grants employees five days off of work over the Novruz holiday, Azerbaijan now holds the second-longest Novruz celebration in the world, trailing only 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, and on four consecutive Tuesdays Azerbaijanis honor the natural elements of earth, wind, fire and water, each of which holds a unique symbolic meaning while playing a role in the return of spring.
On Water Tuesday (Su Cersenbesi), 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 often sprinkle each other with water before going to bed.
On Fire Tuesday (Od Cersenbesi), Azerbaijanis jump over a bonfire that symbolizes purification, with each leap symbolizing the leaving behind of troubles and hardships. People then take the ashes home to scatter in their gardens in the hope of increasing fertility.
Wind Tuesday (Yel Cersenbesi) 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!" ("Wind Father!"). If the wind blows in response and the branches touch the ground, their dreams will purportedly come true.
Earth Tuesday (Torpaq Cersenbesi or Ilakhir Charshanba) is the final and most important of Azerbaijan’s pre-Navruz celebrations. Seven dishes are prepared, all with names starting with the letter "s." Herb rues are thrown into fire as protection against evil, while ashes gathered on this day are sprinkled in every corner 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 symbolic meaning: baklava represents the sky and stars, gogal symbolizes the sun, shekerbura the moon and colored eggs reflect 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 the day before to celebrate together. The hostess places the khoncha 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. All during Novruz, the doors of Azerbaijani homes remain open as a symbol of hospitality. On the first day, homes must also remain lit throughout the night to ensure good luck in the coming year.
The Novruz holiday in Azerbaijan 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 and fortune tellers perform before 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, symbolizing spring. The play always ends with the victory of the latter.