Traditions Field Note
ABSTRACT: In March, I travelled to Azerbaijan to witness the traditional festival of Novrus. Novrus is an ancient holiday that involves giant puppets, delicious food and jumping over fire!
You’ve already heard about my travels to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. But for Novrus I went to the second biggest city, Ganja. One of my friends teaches at the university in Ganja. He introduced me to two of his students and took us to many Novrus celebrations. The first day was a Tuesday, bonfire day!
During Novrus, each week is devoted to one of the four Zoroastrian elements: wind, water, fire and soil. On every Tuesday, people make giant bonfires! It’s said that if you can jump over the fire three times, your wish will be granted. Fire is especially important during Novrus in Azerbaijan because of the oil fields. Bonfires happen all through the month, especially on the last night! Can you think of why oil fields would have a strong connection to fires?
On my first night in Azerbaijan, we visited a family and their neighbors celebrating Novrus. They had big fire going in the courtyard between their houses and blasted songs from all over the world on their huge boom box. Although only one of us could speak any Azeri, and the Azeris couldn’t speak much English, we had a really great time dancing! One little girl even tried to teach me how to do a traditional dance.
The next day, we saw the town square. It was really well decorated! There were giant puppets that were 20 feet tall on one end, ready to act out the old Novrus stories. On the columns of the old city hall flew banners for each of the four elements. Walking around the market, I saw a lot of baskets full of newly sprouting grass. Inside the grass was hidden bright red dyed eggs.
That night was the final night of Novrus, so the celebrations were especially enthusiastic. There was a concert in the town square with traditional music and Azeri pop/rock music. Afterwards, I was determined to find a good bonfire. When everyone started searching, we found many that were already burning out, but we were looking for a big one.
At last we found a large bonfire and each managed to jump over it three times, much to the appreciative laughter of some local men. Afterwards, we went to visit some of my friend’s university students. The house was quite large with a walled-off courtyard and a heavy gate. All the doors were made of ornately carved wood, one of the family members was an artistic carpenter. We were treated to Novrus cakes and a performance of traditional accordion. When the man started playing a wedding song, his father beat the table like a drum and got up and danced too! Afterwards, we ended our night by watching fireworks.
What is the history behind this tradition?
I learned about the ancient Zoroastrian holiday of Novrus. Novrus is a little bit like Easter because it is a holiday for celebrating the return of spring. But the holiday lasts for a whole month, like Ramadan. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions. It predates Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. It’s at least 26 centuries old. Zoroastrianism is practiced all over the world, but most Zoroastrians live in India, where they make up a very small portion of the population. Novrus is still celebrated in Azerbaijan even though it is mostly a Muslim country!
Why does the community have this tradition?
Novrus celebrates the turn of frigid winter into warm spring. It seemed to happen just in time this year, as the first peach trees began to bloom that week. The tradition comes from ancient Iran, but the Zoroastrian religion and its festivals spread from Iran to Azerbaijan, India, China and even parts of Georgia!
Is this tradition connected to its environment? How?
The festival is all about celebrating the change of the seasons and connects with many changes that occur with the coming of spring. Each week is for one of the elements: water, air, soil, and fire. Fire is really important to Azerbaijan because of its underground oil. Azerbaijan is called the “land of fire” because they are the source of so much of the oil that we use every day in the world.