Happy Novruz! Happy Renewal… It’s Just What We Need Now!
Some of my favorite times in Baku, Azerbaijan were centered on the spring New Year celebrations of Novruz, the time of renewal. There was an air of anticipation, and as the saying goes, “Spring defines the luck of a year”.
I loved that my students and friends took me into their homes to show me and teach me about Novruz traditions and customs.
Especially when it came to what to do when little kids came to my door, leaving their caps to be filled with a sweet of some sort. For me that meant chocolate candies. I loved hearing them giggling as they ran away once they had “knocked my door.”
I also found it interesting that part of the Novruz custom included the sprouting of wheat grass. Seeing the long grass reminded me of one of my first impressions.
Not long after I first arrived, a boulevard building was renovated, and in modern fashion it also included a small strip of grass out front. This was very rare at that time and showed the high level of renovation. It was maybe a meter wide by 3 or 4 meters long- kind of like a long narrow carpet runner for a hallway, not really a big enough area to justify importing a western type lawnmower, so each week there was a lady who sat on the lawn in the summer heat cutting the grass with a pair of scissors. Indelible memories…
My favorite memories included the baked treats that mothers all over the city made- particularly the Shekerbura (şəkərbura), a popular Azerbaijani sweet pastry, filled with ground nuts, usually walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts. A perfect afternoon break with tea!
But, beyond all the treats and traditions, Novruz has a deeper symbolic meaning that exceeds anything I have seen at home here in the US.
We usually look back on the year that was and think good riddance, Auld Lang Syne, never forget, and all that.
By contrast, I was struck by the level of respect that eastern New Year celebrations show toward the coming year, specifically the call to renew yourself, to get ready. And the people do!
“Novruz is a triumph of cleanliness and health.
In order to greet these favourite days properly, good works are done throughout the country, improvements are made to villages, city streets and courtyards, roads are cleaned and houses are repaired. Accommodation is carefully cleaned and tidied.
Everything is put in order, house walls are whitewashed. Everywhere is radiant with cleanliness. People call it “house cleaning”.
Girls and brides clean their carpets and rugs, take them out into the open air, hang them on lines and fences, beat the dust out of them, leave them to air in the sun, with the wish that friends may rejoice in their prosperity and foes may be afflicted.” ¹
At the end of winter this renewed energy goes into getting the house clean (which is where our “spring cleaning” customs were born) and getting the Haft Sin table ready.
“Haft” is ‘seven’ in Farsi, and “sin” (pronounced like ‘seen’) is the sound of the Farsi ‘S’. Seven things that begin with the sound of S are gathered for the traditional celebration, preparations for which actually begin about a month in advance. In Azerbaijan they are gathered on a table or a large copper tray.
- sabzeh – wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish – symbolizing rebirth
- samanu – a sweet pudding made from germinated wheat – symbolizing affluence
- senjed – the dried fruit of the oleaster tree – symbolizing love
- sīr – garlic – symbolizing medicine
- sīb – apples – symbolizing beauty and health
- somaq – sumac berries – symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
- serkeh – vinegar – symbolizing age and patience.
- Sonbol – Hyacinth (plant); some also use tulips as well, or instead of hyacinth
- Sekkeh – Coins – representative of wealth
- Shekarbura and other pastries such as bakhlava, toot, naan-nokhodchi
- Aajeel – dried nuts, berries and raisins
- Candles (enlightenment and happiness) often one for each child in the house
- Mirror (symbolizing cleanness and honesty)
- Decorated eggs, sometimes one for each member of the family (fertility)
- Goldfish – a bowl of water with goldfish (life within life, and the sign of Pisces which the sun is leaving). As an essential object of the Novruz table, this goldfish is also “very ancient and meaningful” and with Zoroastrian connection
- Rosewater- believed to have magical cleansing powers ²
So you can see that there is a great deal of thought that goes into this celebration of renewal. The wheat grass has to be sprouted from fresh seed at least 3 weeks ahead of time, the pastries have to be baked (and there are a lot of them to be prepared from scratch- no boxed Bakhlava mixes here!)
“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 Shekerbura symbolising the moon with its crescent shape and pale color.
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.”
But wait, there is more to this complex holiday.
When we began the Baku Rotary club, we were fortunate to have a combination of local and expatriate members. It was from these friends that I first learned about the four elements of life leading up to Novruz. Kind of a cool way to look at the whole of renewal.
During the weeks preceding Novruz, each Tuesday is significant. Each of the 4 Tuesdays, focuses on a different theme, or traditional aspect of renewing life.
- First, is Water Tuesday, where water renews nature (think water on the wheat that sprouts into semeni).
- Fire Tuesday follows second, and honors fire as a method of rebirth. Fire is the element that signifies we are purified of our evil deeds of the year past, and we are reborn fresh for the coming year.
- Earth Tuesday is week three, marking the revival of the earth. The semeni should be sprouting by this time, along with hyacinth and tulip bulbs , showing the cycle of regeneration.
- Lastly, Wind Tuesday is when the wind opens the buds and marks the arrival of Spring.
Fire worship forms an integral part of the celebrations with fires being lit on the four Tuesdays in the run up to Novruz. On the last Tuesday, everyone jumps over the fire representing purification.³
Then the festivities wrap up on the 13th day of the new year with a family outing for Sizdah Bedar (figuratively meaning “Passing the bad luck of the thirteenth day”). This is a day of festivity outdoors, often accompanied by music and dancing, usually at family picnics. Since this is also tends to coincide with April Fool’s Day, some humorous tricks and games may be played on family and friends.
I can see how this approach make sense. It’s a surprisingly holistic approach to renewal.
It’s hard to think of starting a New year when we are in the dead of winter. All the good resolutions seem to die a quick death when it is too cold to go out and get active, or tackle many of the other good ideas that are made in the frenzy of post-holiday celebrating.
But in Spring? Most definitely… I can certainly see a new start happening now. The world is awakening from its long winter slumber and we’re ready to get out and conquer new ground.
I don’t know about you, but this sounds like just what the doctor ordered this year… a New Year renewal! I can have a do over this year.
Though, I must say, I’m not sure how my neighbors in this city will feel about me starting a bonfire in my driveway, much less trying to force my winter legs to jump high enough over it.
Maybe I should just start with a small fire this year; maybe something in the fire pit on the deck would work… with a nice bottle of wine and some cheese?
The spring cleaning and the renewal do sound appealing… So Happy Novruz! Happy Renewal…
Let me know if you also take up the official Novruz “Do Over” Renewal challenge this year!
P.S. If you think you’d like to make your own Shekerbura, I found a link (A) to help out with a recipe and step by step instructions in English. (My Azerbaijani cookbook wouldn’t be much help to you, but these are good.)
http://www.azcookbook.com/2009/03/12/shekerbura/ >> good step by step pictures to follow
May your life have the aroma of spring. We wish you good, bright mornings!