The 21st of March marks the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring. Today, I am happy to welcome back Gulara Vincent for this lovely guest contribution to Discovering Traditions, you can find her previous guest post here, and an overview of this blog’s guest posts here.
Novruz – Spring festival in Azerbaijan by Dr Gulara Vincent
Novruz is the spring festival dearly loved and widely celebrated in Azerbaijan (and many other countries too). When I was a child, it was not an official holiday. The Soviet Union disapproved of my country’s fire-worshipping and pagan festivities. People kept it going for seven decades though. In 1993, it became an official holiday in a newly-independent Azerbaijan.
Although Novruz is celebrated on 20-21 March, the spring festival begins a month in advance. First, all households had a massive spring clearing. We washed everything: bedding, windows, walls, expensive dishes displayed in cupboards, candelabras and floors. We also cleared rugs and carpets, mended clothes and made or bought new ones. New trees were planted and gardens were tidied up. Families visited their dead relatives’ graveyards to pay their respects.
Afterwards, even the poorest households did very little but cooked and baked delicious food. My grandma made hundreds of shakarburas. We gathered at a large oval table to fill in sweet pastry with crushed walnuts or hazelnuts, decorating them with tweezers. I loved those gatherings because women told stories about their lives.
As far as I was concerned, the best Novruz sweets were bakhlavas. I could watch my grandma forever, while she was alternating layers of pastry and crushed walnuts and hazelnuts mixed with sugar. After she poured syrup made of honey and saffron over the thick top layer, I was allowed to decorate each diamond shaped baklava with a walnut and hazelnut halves.
Celebrations began four Tuesdays before Novruz. Each Tuesday had a theme and we celebrated awakening of water, fire, earth and wind. The last Tuesday before Novruz was as big as the celebration of Novruz itself.
Food was the best part of the festival. My grandma always made some pilav. She steamed rice with saffron, cinnamon and turmeric. It was served with caramelised onions mixed with succulent chunks of lamb, chestnuts, dried apricots, plumbs and raisins. Another favourite dish was dolma: vine leaves stuffed with minced lamb, rice and fresh herbs and served with plain yogurt and crushed garlic sauce. I ate dolmas with my hand using chunks of freshly baked flat bread to pick up tidy parcels of stuffed vine leaves smeared in a sauce. These rich dishes were followed by dovga, a cold yogurt soup made with finely chopped mint, coriander, dill and parsley. I loved dovga because it helped digesting dolmas and pilav.
Those were the main dishes. In addition, a long table in our living room could barely fit in plates of fresh salads, herbs, starters, walnuts and hazelnuts in their shells, bowls of fresh fruit which were particularly expensive around this time of year. I loved mandarins, pomegranates and big juicy red apples. We also had a plate of decorated boiled eggs. They were mainly dark red as grandma boiled them with onion shells that gave them a natural looking tint. The main course was followed by black tea with bakhlavas and shekerburas.
Traditionally, a festive table contained seven items starting with the letter ‘s’. For example, every household had semeni, green sprouting wheat grass grown up to 20 cm tall and tied around by a thin red ribbon. It stood proudly in the middle of the table and was the hallmark of spring’s arrival. It symbolised rebirth and the renewal of nature. Semeni had a sweet scent, and I loved watering it daily. Another item starting with ‘s’ was sumac, crushed berry spice used with meat. Having it on the table meant that life this year might be spicier.
Novruz was great fun for the younger generation. Kids knocked at neighbours’ doors, left their hats on the porch and hid away expecting their hats to be filled with nuts, nibbles and sweets. Originally, this tradition was established to help out poor families. Nowadays, it gets children extra treats.
What I loved most about Novruz was the sense of community this festival offered. There were a lot of people on the street gathered around bonfires. After a family dinner at home, people flocked together to chat and sing folk songs. This one was my favourite:
‘There is a stone flying into your window,
Please, look at me, please look at me,
There are tears in my eyes,
Please, look at me, please look at me.
If your family agrees to give you away to me
Please, look at me, please look at me.
That would please everyone,
Please, look at me, please look at me,’
When bonfires were a manageable size, young boys and even some girls jumped over them. The fire burnt all negative energy trailing behind them and cleansed them for the new year.
Also, Novruz was great time for predicting the future. All young single girls wanted to know whether that would be the year when they got married. There were many ways to find that out. For example, you could throw a shoe over your right shoulder towards the entrance door. If it landed facing the house, it was not your year. But if it was facing away from the door, chances were that you’d walk away from your household with your husband. Another reliable way of finding out about your future was to eavesdrop. Whatever you heard was bound to happen.
Dr Gulara Vincent is a writer, blogger, and a university law lecturer. She lives in Birmingham, England, with her husband and two young children. You can visit her writer’s blog at http://gularavincent.com/blog or connect with her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrGularaVincent) and Twitter (@).