National feasts

Kazakh culture and national traditions

Nauryz toi
Nauryz is the celebration of the new year practiced in most eastern countries, but it was mostly forgotten in Kazakhstan until four years ago. This wonderful holiday has now been reinstituted, enhancing our rich tradition. This holiday is celebrated in Spring, when day and night are equally divided, and when mother earth, people, cattle, insects, and all of nature begins to blossom and revive. Cranes and geese return during this period from warm places, and signs of Spring are everywhere. Nauryz is celebrated on the twenty second of March, just before the coming of April and May bring forth the fragrance of flowers to tickle one's nose. Uighir people call this celebration "Kuit kezi." During Nauryz festivities, zhigits would joke with the ladies, cows would calve, and birds would lay eggs. Everybody would be happy and joyful that the cold winter days were over. During Nauryz, people would be very kind and hospitable, forgetting about previous quarrels, making friends, and wishing each other happiness. Hostesses would prepare Nauryz koje (thin porridge) and invite neighbors to taste it. They would greet each other with congratulations upon the beginning of the new year, and wish one another prosperity and happiness. During my childhood I remember that we lived in a valley. When Nauryz arrived, the sun shone brightly and there was no trace of snow. Poor old women would open the tuirlik (the felt which covered the lower cylindrical part of the hut) and begin patching the fabric. This meant that they were eager to move to the summer pasture and were doing all the preparations required for the move. The quickest families were already in their summer pastures, preparing for the nauryz celebration. By this time all meat from the previous Autumn's slaughter would have been eaten, with just enough for nauryz koje left over.

My mother asked me to fill the huge kazan with water, one of the seven ingredients we had to add to nauryz koje. Then she added a fat pelvic bone from a sheep and kazy (horse sausage). After this she skimmed the broth, then added salt and ground wheat. Then she asked me to stir the kurt with the water, while she turned to making beesting. Finally, she asked me to bring some garlic from our Higher neighbors.

When the koje was ready, mother invited all the neighbors to eat some. One of the aksakals would pray before starting to eat, and after finishing would conclude: "May this great nauryz day bring much rain and more diary products to everybody. Everyone take care!." Others would wish their neighbors many children and the cattle. It would also be required for all neighbors to taste each others nauryz koje, because each family had prepared it for sharing. In the evening all of them would gather in one yurt to visit. They would talk about their experiences, about kazakh batyrs and their bravery, quote the sayings of wise people, and talk of the fairness of Bi (a judge from an ancient Kazakh aul). Singers in attendance also sang colorful folksongs, and it might take the entire day for a clan to glorify their families and places they were from.

At night, well-dressed young people would swing on an "Altybakan" (a swing with six poles). In earlier times the entire aul would go to greet the sunrise. From early morning men would then dig irrigation ditches and begin to plant. They would say "Instead of leaving cattle, you should leave a tree." Women would water them. Nauryz was especially enjoyable for the children. They would wear different animal masks on their faces and argue with each other. Parents greatly enjoyed watching such an event. A favorite argument was about which of them would be most the first and most prominent during the year. They might argue:

1. Mouse:
Hey, people! Listen to me,
I'd be the beginning of the year
You stink cow - with your fat stomach
Who are you to compete with me

2. Cow:
You, tiny creature,
don't be foolish and cunning
If I have a fat stomach
it means people need my milk
I must be the first.

3. Leopard:
I'm the strongest among the beasts You, coward, I'd kill anyone Get out of my way.

4. Rabbit:
I'm not coward, It a harmless musketeer,
There is much snow in a rabbits year
It means rich a harvest
to feed people and cattle
I think, I deserve to be the beginner

5. Snail:
Among insects I'm the respected one
You mustn't trust long-tailed snake be careful

6. Snake:
It poisoned snake
I'd bite you if you won't let me be the first

7. Horse:
I'm like wings for zhigits and always with them
I'm very useful
People ride and drink my kumiss
which like medicine
cures any disease

8. Sheep:
I'm very calm
Everyone praises me
A good sheep year means abundance
Monkeys year would bring disaster
So I must be the first

9. Monkey:
I'm a monkey
I make everyone smile
It hot tempered, but very energetic

10. Cock:
I feel danger at once,
and I wake you in the morning
So we are helpful everywhere we call home back at
night we must be the first

11. Dog:
It a great stayer,
I keep your cattle from wolves and thieves besides
I am a friend of the human being
Don't you think we must be the beginners?

12. Pig:
Do not forget us if we grunt
You'll be scared immediately So we are to start the year.

Upon hearing the children uttering the sounds of these animals and behaving like them, their parents would laugh and enjoy the scene. So, the Nauryz holiday is one of the brightest and most meaningful holidays of the Kazakh people.

Shek Beru

One of the religious holidays of Kazakhs inherited from Islam is Shek Beru, celebrated during Ait, or Ramadan. Usually poor men without a wife to lay their table would come during Ait. A sheep would be slaughtered and all the neighbors invited. An old guest would be asked to read the Koran in honor of dead ancestors, and prayers to Allah and his Prophet would be intoned. Old men and women would typically visit amongst themselves during this holiday.

Oraza Ait (a holiday after the fast)
To describe this religious holiday we need to again describe some personal experiences. Above we said that Shek Beru was held just before the month of fasting prescribed by the Koran, and it was primarily a celebration for the old and the poor. Oraza Ait, on the other hand, was one of the interesting and long- awaited post-fasting holidays for children. It was a holiday which required an abundance of food. In our childhood, our family was among thirty others who lived in a neighborhood also populated by Uigurs. We didn't have any relations with other Uigur or Chinese who lived in other regions. Our region was situated to the north of Erenkabyrga (geographical name), and it was called Shikhu - which means "Western Lake" in Chinese. The Kalmaks called our region "Karasun," because there were many ponds there. Such names are fitting, for ours was a picturesque place with many forests and lakes full of fish. There was also an abundance of wheat and many watermelons grown in local fields and orchards; and when herds of horses appeared, they obscured even the light of the sun.

On the day of Oraza Ait, people would rise early and hurry to the mosque. Some would travel by cart, some would walk. People from neighboring auls, if they didn't have a mosque, would also come to ours. On the way to the mosque, everyone would sing, but it was difficult for everyone to come inside the mosque to worship, because there were often too many people. Those who could not get inside would spread their rugs and pray. The Oraza Ait celebration also included: 1) everybody visiting and tasting food in at least forty houses; 2) presenting gifts to children; 3) visiting family graves and offering prayers for the dead; and 4) stopping by the bazaar to listen to all the music and smelling good food like palau, manti, lagman, and samsa. 5) In the afternoon, everyone would enjoy Kazakh national games such as kokbar and kyz kuu; games we will describe in some detail later. In any event, adults would usually enjoy such games until their completion. As for the children, they would usually hurry home after namaz (praying). They would have attempted to guess beforehand which yurt contained the best presents for them upon their journey. Nobody during Ait would refuse the requests of children, giving them coins, candies, nuts, dried apricots and raisins. Children would fill their pockets and rush home to count the blessings they had "earned." In the evening, everybody would find themselves at home, and we children would tell our parents what houses we visited and what had been given to us. Ait continued for three days, and during those days we would accumulate enough food to last for several more. The money we were given at Ait would often be used to purchase some cloths. As was Shek Beru, Oraza. Ait was moslem religious holiday of a charitable sort, because all poor people would be particularly taken care of. Fasting lasted for a month, and Oraza Ait was held immediately following. In the cities, a special musician would waken people every morning with his instrument. In more rural places, neighbors would awaken each other. Both the Uigur and Dungan mosques were always crowded during these holidays, and specially prepared kokidi (a fat cake, approximating a pancake) was cooked and given to all children who gathered at each. Money and food and clothes would also be given to beggars.

Kurban Ait
Every family usually tried to slaughter a sheep for this holiday, and Kazakhs tried to prolong this event for several days. Preparing food beforehand, families would fry fat cakes and baursaks. They'd also buy new cloths for this occasion, prepare their harnesses, and clean their houses. It is hard to imagine how pleasant it was to ride a horse or go for a walk during this time of year. Ladies would wear their best clothes, laugh and joke with one another. It was great for a zhigit to ride nearby the beautiful ladies; to chat and joke with them. People would enjoy kokpar a national game in one place; close by one might see zhigits wrestling. Every yurt would be open, welcoming the visitor to have some meat or drink some tea or kumiss. It was also interesting to visit the bazaar. Earlier we said that; people prolonged this holiday because of kokpar. Kokpar is a national game, in which zhigits would be given a small goat and proceed to grasp it from each other while riding their horses. Struggling to maintain possession of the carcass, they'd ride far into the distance, returning sometimes only at night. If they returned too late to go to their aul, they might stay the night at the yurt of another contestant. Their host would slaughter for them a sheep to treat and entertain them, the next day their game would continue until their horses were too weary to continue.

Sirge jiyar
If somebody ever tried to describe the primary peculiarities of different nations, they might say that the Chinese were people satisfied with everything; Uigurs as industrious folk always busy in their orchards; and kazakhs as generous. This peculiarity of Kazakhs is well displayed by the holiday Sirge jiyar.

When Kazakhs returned home from their summer pastures, they would distribute kumiss from a horse which had recently foaled: not doing so would be considered a sin. The host and hostess were glad to provide kumiss to everyone, an indication they were happy and prosperous. This also relieved them of an expected duty. Generous kazakhs would invite any stranger to their house, asking nothing in return for their hospitality. Sirge jiyar is a minor holiday connected with horse foaling. Typically, Kazakh families had several horses. When their horses foaled, they would process kumiss and invite all the neighbors and relatives to drink fresh kumiss. On that day they would mark foals; one for their jien, another for their son. Everybody would have their fill of kumiss; children would be happy to have their own foal; and everything was generally thought to be wonderful.