Nauryz, Celebrating the Coming of Spring and Abundance

About Kazakhstan culture and national traditions

Nauryz is one of the oldest holidays on Earth. This holiday of spring and the renewed life of the Earth has been celebrated for over five thousand years by many cultures of the Middle and Central Asia and, according to some sources, by eastern Slavs as well.

Historical records referring to this holiday can be found in ancient and middle age documents. In the oriental chronology, it corresponds to Navruz, the Iranian New Year. Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Uighurs passed the Nauryz traditions from generation to generation. The Tajiks called it Gulgardon or Gulnavruz, the Tatars refer to it as Nardugan and the Ancient Greeks knew it as Patrich. The roots of this holiday can be traced to old pagan rituals. The celebration was meant to reflect people's love to nature. People have preserved the rituals, and today the holiday has acquired new spiritual and ethical meaning.

This holiday has been celebrated on 22 March, the day of the spring equinox. That's why the Kazakhs call the month of March Nauryz. It was celebrated as the day of the renewed life which comes with the spring. It was the day when the first spring thunder strikes, buds are swelling on the trees and vegetation grows wildly. Nauryz as a non-religious celebration of the spring and renewal is closely linked to some other Kazakh holidays, such as a "farewell to winter" festival. Boys born on this day would be called Nauryzbai or Nauryzbek, and girls Nauryz or Nauryzgul. It was seen as a good omen if it was snowing on that day.

The March snow is usually soft and particularly white. Beautiful girls were often compared to the white snow of Nauzys. In the past, the Kazakh called Nauryz the Day of the People or the Great Day of the People. People believed, the more generous the celebration of Nauryz was the happier the year would be. Therefore, there are so many rituals and festivities related to this holiday. On the eve of the holiday, people would clean their homes, pay back their debts and reconciled with their opponents because, as the old people used to say, if Nauryz entered the house, all diseases and failures would pass it by. On the night before the festival, all vessels in the house would be filled with milk, airan (plain yogurt), grain, and spring water because it meant that people would have a lot of milk, good yield and plenty of rain during the coming year.

During the day, everybody tried to be in good spirits, would give a big hug to each other and wish good fortune and happiness to others. The celebrations would begin with sunrise. There is an old ritual "If you see a spring, clean up its source". At dawn, all adults, youngsters and children would pick up spades, go to an agreed place near a spring or aryk (small water canal) and clean it. There, they would also plant trees under the supervision of respectable old people. During the process, they had to say: "Let a man leave a tree rather than a herd in the people's memory" and "If you cut one tree, you will have to plant ten!"

After the ritual was completed, three messengers went around the village or town and called everybody to join the celebrations. They were dressed in bright festive costumes. Sometimes, they dressed up like heroes of Kazakh fairly-tales: Aldar Kose, Zhirenshe and beautiful Karashash. Then, the show would begin. People enjoyed themselves and congratulated each other with the New Year. They wish each other all the best, sang songs specially composed for this holiday called Nauryz Zhyr, watched wrestling between a man and a woman and took part in the competitions in toung-twisting ("zhanyltpash") or riddle solving ("zhumbak").

A great deal of food was prepared during these days. It symbolized prosperity and wealth in the coming year. At noon, a bull was killed and a special dish was cooked from the meat. It was called "bell-koterer" (posture straightening) because the bull was considered to be one of the strongest animals and meals cooked from its meat would give people strength and stamina. Each family would lay a dastarkhan (festive table). People would sit down at the table at noon. Mullah would read prayers dedicated to ancestors before and after the meal. At the end of the meal, the oldest men among them would give a blessing so that prosperity would never leave the family.

The Kazakhs attached special importance to the number of seven during the Nauryz celebrations because it symbolized the seven days of the week, which was considered to be a time unit of the universal eternity. Seven bowls with the Nauryz-kozhe drink (made from seven sorts of seven types of herbs) would be put in front of the aksakals (respectable old people). The meals were composed of seven components, usually meat, salt, fat, onions, wheat, kurt (a type of cheese) and irimshik (a kind of cottage cheese).

The celebration always included mass games, traditional horse races and other competitions. The most famous and favourite were the games of "Aikysh-uishysh" (towards each other) and "Audaryspek" where dzhigits (skillful horsemen) had to pull each other down from their saddles. Sport competitions were popular and both boys and girls could take part in them. A girl would invite a dzhigit to have a go and compete with her on one condition: if he wins, he would have the right to marry her, and if she wins he would have to obey her and execute her every desire.

Hence, Nauryz would often turn into a wedding celebration. All people regardless of their gender, age and social position were excused from daily duties and took an equal part in the fun and games. Various ethical bans regarding relations between men and women were lifted during this time, even the relations between the oldest brother-in-law and sister-in-law. (Scientists link this game to free dating and mass entertainment which was widespread when two clans were intermarrying at the time when nature came back to life. Then, all bans and restrictions in the relations between men and women were lifted for a short period of time.) A poetic show would complete the day: two Akyns (poets) took part in a song competition. The competition would be over with the sunset when, according to a common belief, the good defeated the evil. Then, people would start a fire and, carrying torches lit from the fire, would go around the village, sing and dance. That was the end of the festival celebrating the spring renewal and equinox. The history of Nauryz has been complicated. The totalitarian Soviet system did not recognize the existence of any national identity and any reference to traditional heritage was considered to be an anachronism and remnants of the past. Nauryz was cancelled in 1926. It was first recreated in Kazakhstan only in 1988 and was extremely popular. Officially, Nauryz was recognized on 15 March 1991 by a Presidential Decree. The President declared 22 March, the day of the spring equinox, a holiday.

Since then, Nauryz has been widely celebrated across the whole country. Of course, the modern festival is essentially different from the old. It is not only about staged shows, ornate yurts, and delicious Nauryz-kozhe. It is also about charitable events, folk sporting games, tending of plants, planting trees, cleaning of parks, streets and squares.

Nowadays, it has become a truly national holiday of spring, work and unity. It is dear to all the peoples living in the multinational Kazakhstan. The ancient holiday of Nauryz has naturally become a part of the modern life, preserving the old traditions.