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21 March 2022

What’s on your Table? Comparing the Region’s Nowruz/Novruz Traditions

Call it Novruz, Nowruz, Nooruz, Nauryz or Navruz, the spring equinox festival is the most significant holiday period for Iran, Azerbaijan and many people in Central Asia. However, the associated customs vary considerably between countries and regions.

What’s on your Table? Comparing the Region’s Nowruz/Novruz Traditions

A plate of wheatgrass is a shared tradition across the Caspian region when it comes to celebrating the spring equinox holiday of Novruz/Nowruz. Image: Alisher Primkulov/Shutterstock 

For a tourist arriving in Azerbaijan during the latter part of March, the country looks it's merry best. Spring is beginning to wield its emerald brush across the arable lowlands, while in towns and cities, you’ll find an array of public festivities and family celebrations. Contrastingly, it’s a terrible time for a business trip with most government offices closed for days on end. Somewhat equivalent in scale to Christmas time in Western Europe, this is ‘Novruz’ - the country’s single biggest holiday season. But by no means is it limited to Azerbaijan. The term comes from a Farsi phrase meaning “new day,” and the festival marks the start of the new year in the Persian calendar. So unsurprisingly, the celebration is particularly important in Iran, the season stretching out nearly two weeks. In Central Asia, thought shorter, the festival is a highlight of the year for many people, whether spelled Navruz (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan), Nauryz (Kazakhstan), Nooruz (Kyrgyzstan) or Nowruz (Turkmenistan as in Iran). Since 2016, Novruz – by any of its many spellings and manifestations – was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and March 21 has been recognized by the general assembly as the International Day of Nowruz.   

A group of people in clothing outside a building

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The holiday is by no means limited to Azerbaijan and Iran. In Central Asia they celebrate Navruz in Uzbekistan (pictured) and Tajikistan, Nauryz in Kazakhstan, Nooruz in Kyrgyzstan and Nowruz in Turkmenistan. Image: RelisaGranovskaya/Shutterstock 

Suppression and Evolution 

Almost by definition, folk culture always changes and evolves both due to political pressures and changing lifestyles and norms. In the Soviet era, Novruz/Nowruz had been labelled a religious festival and thus suppressed to varying degrees in different parts of the USSR. While the clampdown was fairly severe in much of Central Asia, it was less rigorously stamped out in Azerbaijan. In 2011 Azerbaijan’s then Minister of Culture noted that “even when there were times when we were forbidden to celebrate the holiday, nobody complied.” And since 1991, each newly independent country has seen its traditions grow back in slightly different ways. Meanwhile, in Iran, the main pressure on the tradition since 1979 has been to ensure at least a token overlay of Islamic sensibility.   

Street Theatre, Fire Jumping 

In all celebrating countries, you’ll find a mixture of contemporary and traditional performances, games, sports and public entertainment. In some, street theatre features a clown-like gift-giving figure and/or a black-faced bully vaguely reminiscent of St Nicholas/Santa and Zwarte Piet in north European pre-Christmas traditions. In Iran, the two are rolled into one as Haji Piruz, leading to questions of racial insensitivity. In Azerbaijan, the pointy-hatted figure of Kosa and his jovial retinue Kechel are more common. A high degree of good-natured farce is implicit in all of the depictions.