The Novruz holiday is celebrated by millions in the Caspian region who welcome the arrival of Spring – and a new year – with ancient but still popular celebrations that help communities say goodbye to winter.
Novruz, which means “new day”, is celebrated on March 21 – the date of the vernal equinox, when winter ends and spring begins. According to the solar calendar, it also marks a new year. The holiday is said to be at least 3,000 years old, and is today widely celebrated in Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and other Central and Western Asian countries.
The holiday reflects a common history, cultural and moral values for almost all in the Caspian, and is marked by family gatherings, extending an olive branch to those one may have fallen out with throughout the year, and visiting relatives and neighbors. No Novruz celebration is complete without preparing lavish tables with national dishes and playing traditional games. However, despite similarities across national boundaries, there are peculiar traditions specific to the various ethnicities found in the Caspian region.
Azerbaijanis love food, and national favorites are a “must have” at Novruz, such as pastries like pakhlava, shekerbura, goghal and badambura, and national versions of plov, or pilaf, made with rice. Family members gather around the table, in the center of which is a khoncha – a tray filled with pastries, various kinds of nuts, dried fruits, candies, colored eggs and samani. For the 10 million people in this country, samani – a green sprouting wheat decorated with red ribbon – is the main symbol of revival and abundance.
A common belief in Azerbaijan says everyone should welcome the new year in their own home rather than at someone else’s. If you are not at home on the holiday, you will spend the entire next year on trips – or so the belief goes.
Fortune-telling at Novruz is not taboo in this and surrounding countries. As a matter of fact, it is central to festivities and ways to pass time with those one visits throughout the holiday period, which lasts around one week. Eavesdropping is probably one of the most popular rites practice: People listen at a closed door, trying to hear what the house owner talks about. If the talk is positive, good things will happen to the listener; otherwise, rainy days are coming.
In one Novruz ritual, engaged girls try to determine just how much their beaux loves them by untying knots on a thread, given to them by their friends. If a girl can untie them, it means her fiancé is crazy about her. If she cannot untie them, her job is to test his love.
Kazakhstan is also celebrating Novruz this week, where it is known as Nauryz Meyrami. No holiday is complete without traditional food. Dastarkhan, a Kazakhstani rendition of pilaf; baursaks, a rounded or diamond-shaped type of fried dough; and a soup called nauryz kozhe are all part of a Kazakhstani household’s Novruz table.
Kazakhs say that nauryz kozhe is a symbol of abundance. Families prepare it in their own way, and the usage of seven key ingredients is the sine qua non of the classical recipe: boiled meat, meat broth, boiled cereals and dairy products such as kefir, sour cream, and kurt – a smooth and creamy yogurt-based beverage made from mare’s milk. When tasting nauryz kozhe for the first time, one must make a wish, which Kazakhs believe will come true.
In Turkmenistan, people celebrate Novruz collectively, and gifts are exchanged as a sign of bringing people together. The National Spring Festival in this Caspian country usually features sports competitions, trade fairs, theatrical performances, concerts, various exhibitions and outdoor festivities – but the most popular is horse racing.
Turkmens, who take great pride in a native horse breed known as Akhal-Teke, or “golden horses,” decorate the animals with an expensive harness and cover their elegant torsos with embroidered blankets as they are paraded in competitions.
Festive culinary menus prepared traditionally by Turkmen women include dishes mainly made from cereal grains, as well as milk and lactic acid products. Novruzyarmasy, or “New Year stew” is a special but simple recipe. Chopped wheat grains are added to a boiling meat broth, cooked for over three hours, and jazzed up with dried candied fruit, black ground pepper, and various spices.
While Russia is predominantly Christian, its sizable Muslim minority population celebrates Novruz. Populations in Russia with Turkic roots, such as those in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and others, welcome the start of spring. While some traditions have changed over the years, one that has stayed the same is the building of a bonfire, which symbolizes purification and the awakening of a new life.
In Tatarstan, located at the confluence of two biggest rivers - the Volga and the Kama, thousands of people usually gather at the central square in the capital city of Kazan to attend celebrations to welcome in spring. Food stalls set up allow locals and tourists alike to sample pilaf, shashlik – also known as kebab – and up to 10 different kinds of flatbread that are cooked in a tandyr.
In Iran, Novruz – pronounced nowruz in Farsi, or Persian – is the first day of the first month in the Iranian calendar, known as Farvardin. For Iranians, the haft-sin table is to their holiday what a decorated tree is to Europeans and Americans at Christmas time. The special table is laid out with seven items that have symbolic meanings. Each item begins with the Persian letter sin (pronounced “seen”), or “s.”
The primary haft-sin items are seeb (apple), sabze (wheat growing in a dish), samanoo (a sweet pudding made from wheat germ), senjed (dried Persian olive), sekke (coin), seer (garlic), and serkeh (vinegar). Sometimes instead of serkeh Iranians will use somagh (sumac) – a popular Middle Eastern, burgundy-colored spice that is typically sprinkled onto thinly sliced raw onions and accompanies kebab and other meat dishes.
The 13th day of the Iranian New Year is called Sizdah Bedar and marks the end of the nearly two-week-long Nowruz celebration. It is spent mostly outdoors when people will leave their homes to go to parks or out in the countryside for a picnic with family and friends.