Anchored in an ancient connection with the elements, Novruz is a festival celebrated across Central Asia. Although traditions and customs vary from country to country, the central premise remains the same everywhere: the holiday marks an entry into the New Year and, essentially, a new start.
This meaning is both literal and metaphorical – as seasons pass, so do feuds between neighbors and friends. Azerbaijanis believe that misdeeds should be forgiven and grudges buried away on Novruz, to symbolize the reawakening of new relations and a pure start to the New Year. Similarly, houses are tidied in a nation-wide cleaning spree, and new clothes are bought or mended and washed thoroughly; weddings are arranged on this auspicious date, and no sins should be committed during the festival.
As with most major festivals in Azerbaijan, a significant part of Novruz celebrations revolve around food – children receive sweets and tables are set with traditional dishes and beautiful decorations such as hand-painted eggs, candles and semeni, green sprouting wheat that marks the arrival of spring. Ancient belief that a table filled with food will guarantee its abundance for the rest of the year survives to this day.
The ubiquitous, mouth-watering pakhlava, a regional take on the Middle Eastern baklava with multiple layers of sweet, crispy filo pastry, is a staunch favourite, followed closely by Azerbaijan’s classic duo – the shakarbura and the shor-gogal. Legend has it that these two sweets form an inseparable, astral union: the shor-gogal, round and a fiery yellow, representing the sun, and the shakarbura symbolising the moon with its crescent shape and pale colour. Other pastries, breads and buns common in Azerbaijani cooking are prepared throughout the holiday by the women of the house, who make sure that the table is set with no less than seven different dishes.
The table – although central to Novruz – is not the only exciting part of the holiday. Perhaps the most anticipated event, beloved by children and adults alike, is fire-jumping, a tradition supposedly dating back to the ancient times of Zoroastrianism, making it over 2,500 years old. On the last Tuesday before the festival, a day called akhir charshanba, bonfires are lit on the streets of Azerbaijan and whole families take part in a jumping bonanza: children and adults, girls and boys, mothers and fathers dance around and jump over a fire – again, a symbolic seven times. The ritual is meant to represent purification and renewal, as jumpers chant for the fire to give them its redness (energy and vigor) and take away their pallor (sickness and death).
Fires such as these cannot be extinguished with water, as this brings bad luck; instead, they must die down on their own, their cold ashes scattered far from any settlements so as to chase away bad luck.
It is no coincidence that fire plays such a vital role during Novruz – after all, the festival is fundamentally connected to nature and the elements. The four Tuesdays that precede Novruz are celebrated as distinct holidays, each bound to a separate element: water, earth, fire, and vegetation. This build-up helps people not only to prepare for the holiday itself, but also to gradually get ready to enter a new, symbolic chapter in their lives.
The importance of Novruz to the Azerbaijani people is immense: in addition to being a five-day national holiday, Novruz has also been recognized as part of the country’s Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Just as the festival marks the dissolution of differences and rebirth in absolute unity with other people, ‘the foundations of the traditions and rituals of Nowruz reflect features of the cultural and ancient customs of the civilizations of East and West’, according to UNESCO.