For the roughly 10 million Azerbaijanis celebrating Novruz Bayram this week – the most anticipated holiday in the calendar, which marks the beginning of the astronomical new year and the start of the springtime – the xonça, or khoncha, is as synonymous with the ancient holiday as a decorated tree is to Christmas.
The xonça is an essential part of celebrations that take place on and around Novruz – an ancient holiday that has its roots in Zoroastrianism and is said to be at least 3,000 years old. Azerbaijanis traditionally put seven items that begin with the letter "s" in the Azerbaijani language on the holiday table.
The large silver or copper tray gets filled with sweets, various kinds of nuts, dried fruits, candles and other traditional items, and is placed in the center of the dining room table, before the start of the holiday, which this year was on March 21 for Azerbaijanis. The date marks the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day, marking the start of spring.
Samani, or sprouts, are a symbol of fertility and is an essential element on the xonça. Germinated from seeds that sprout and grow several inches high in time for the holiday, samani is a sign of the successful sowing of seeds on farmland and a rich harvest in the coming year. Azerbaijanis typically grow their samani from wheat, barley, peas, lentils or other grains in copper dishes.
Colored, hard-boiled eggs and a mirror are other integral items placed on a xonça, representing the end of the former year and the beginning of the first day of a new one. Similar to the tradition of children hunting for dyed eggs at Easter, family members play an amusing game with them, tapping two together until one cracks. The person holding the cracked egg is considered the loser of the little game and must do a favor for the winner.
As a sign of unity, wax candles are placed around the khoncha – one for each member of the family – and lit, as a representation of fire protecting each person from evil spirits. Azerbaijanis believe that any wishes that get made while lighting the candles will come true throughout the year.
But the xonça, and the Novruz holiday overall, do not stop with sprouting grains, colored eggs or candles. For many, the best part is the assortment of classic Azerbaijani sweets and pastries that decorate the tray and make one’s mouth water, such as pakhlava, shakarbura and qoqal. These tasty treats all have a symbolic meaning, relating to the heavens above. Round shaped, toasted and crispy orange-yellow colored qoqal depict the sun, while the half-circle shaped shakarbura symbolizes the moon. Diamond-cut shapes of thin dough, rolled into seven layers, which are used to make pakhlava represent both the sky and stars.
While the xonça is part of traditions and culture, family is the heart of Novruz – a time when families are gathered at their homes and make wishes for divine blessings and abundance in the coming year.