Nowruz (literally “new day” in Persian) is widely celebrated in a number of Muslim countries, such as Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and other regions of Central Asia, although this holiday is not of Islamic origin. In fact, it is the festival of vernal equinox usually falling on the 20th or 21st March. According to an ancient solar calendar, the March equinox signifies the beginning of the year.
Nowruz Festival symbolises people’s worship of natural forces. It has an old and rich history dating back to ancient times. The first recorded Nowruz celebration was in 505 B.C. There are different versions of Nowruz origin, and the most common one is related to Zoroastrianism (the ancient, pre-Islamic religion of Persia and Central Asia). Many festival attributes confirm this hypothesis.
For example, it is still the custom to make ritual fires, to fire torches and candles (Zoroastrians were fire-worshippers and believed in fire as the life force), to paint eggs (as a symbol of new life), to germinate wheat and burley grains and to put them on the holiday table with various sweets. Nowruz has also absorbed some pagan traditions, chiromancy in particular. And one cannot imagine it, as any other holiday, without music, dances, people’s festive gatherings, games, competitions and fireworks.
In Azerbaijan Nowruz Festival (Novruz Bayramı) is celebrated during several days (it was previously celebrated during 13 days). And people begin to prepare for it a month before. Each of four pre-holiday weeks (to be more precise, each Tuesday*) is dedicated to one of four elements — the earth, water, fire and air (wind).
The first Tuesday is the Day of Water (Su Çərşənbəsi). It falls for the last week of February. Snow begins thawing then on the slopes, water from melted snow run to low-lying lands, hurrying to rivers. Water carries life. That day at a sunrise people used to go to river or spring, washed, sprinkled each other. Water, after a sun ray has glided over it, is considered (according to the ancient belief) renewed and sacred, and desires of a person, who has taken a bath in it, are to come true. The latter resembles the Epiphany bathing.
Next Tuesday is the Day of Fire (Od Çərşənbəsi). Fire presents the earth with warmth, melts the ice cover, which has bound it. This evening candles are lighted in houses (their quantity should be equal to the number of family members), and a fire is made in the street. The third Tuesday (Torpaq Çərşənbəsi) is dedicated to the Earth — Earth-mother, Earth-bread-winner. The nature begins to revive — first tender grass begins shooting. People soak the wheat grain for the future holiday table, saying: “Semeni, take care of me, I will grow you yearly!” (“Səməni, saxla məni, ildə göyərdərəm səni!”). Germinating wheat (semeni) is a symbol of welfare, sacred bread. The fourth and the last Tuesday is the Day of Wind, Windflow (Yel Çərşənbəsi)… A soft spring wind caresses the earth, sways bushes, wakes up trees from the winter dream, opens buds. This day was considered the most important one among all four days. Numerous ceremonies and rituals, in particular various chiromancies, were dedicated to just this day.
There was too interesting guessing by ear, when guys and girls came to their neighbours’ doors to overhear their talks, and tried to guess whether their desire will come true. Besides, it was forbidden to quarrel and swear at each other during the last Tuesday, because those who went to guess could hear these words, and it is not difficult to imagine what negative and sometimes destructive sense could they acquire. Fortunately, this custom has been remained till our days: any quarrels, arguments, and especially swears or curses are inadmissible in the days of Novruz. As to offences, one should forget and forgive them.
In the evening of the last Tuesday people also make the street fires as a symbol of purification. According to belief, everybody had to jump over fire (like Slavs at Kupala night), saying: “All my troubles to you, and your joys to me”. One cannot put out fire with water: only when fire dies out, guys and girls have to gather ashes and pour it out as far as possible. That means that confusions of people, who have jumped over fire, have gone and will never return.
The last night before Nowruz all family members sprinkle each other with water to wash out all the troubles of the old year. This holiday is celebrated at home. Light would shine all night long, since fire which has died bodes misfortune. There is a holiday tray (honcha) on the table with a plate full of sprouting wheat, candles (their quantity is equal to the number of family members) bright painted eggs (resembling the Easter painted eggs), sweets (sheker-bura, pakhlava, sheker churek).
According to tradition, there would be seven meals on the table, which names begin with “s”, for example: semelek (a meal of wheat sprouts), sebzi (parsley greenery), sudzhuk (congealed syrup with nut filling). There is also a mirror with a painted egg on it on the table. This symbolises the end of the old year and a coming new year. People greet each other, wish health and longevity, comfort and family happiness.
Nowruz is one of the most beautiful and old holidays with a lot of various rites and traditions. That is a holiday which was and will always remain a spiritual wealth of many nations.
* In Azerbaijan all holiday Tuesdays are called çərşənbə, though çərşənbə is not Tuesday but Wednesday. Tuesday is çərşənbə axşamı.