Kazakh Childbirth Traditions
According to a Kazakh proverb, “A house full of children is a place of happiness. A house without children is a graveyard.” The birth of a child is the greatest source of joy for many Kazakhs, and birth practices in Kazakhstan reflect this happiness.
Understandably, there are many Kazakh childbirth traditions that continue even to this day. Since these rituals are believed to protect the child from evil and ensure a long, prosperous life, they are carried out with great reverence.
Immediately after birth the baby is wrapped in a clean diaper, made either from the clothes of an elderly person or from the diaper of a child from a large family. After the child is dressed in a special shirt (it koylek) and necessary rituals are performed, the shirt is replaced with ordinary clothes.
The first forty days in the life of a child are considered extremely special, for during this period the infant is very vulnerable and exposed to dark forces. Near the cradle of the baby, a light remains burning constantly to scare away all evil.
During these first forty days, an important role is assigned to the baby’s godmother (kyndyk sheshe). According to legend, her strengths and good qualities are transmitted to the child. On each of the special days - the first, third, fifth, seventh and fortieth – the kyndyk keshe is an honored guest who brings gifts to the mother and baby. She’s also entrusted with the besik salu ritual, in which the baby is first laid in the cradle. Having laid the child down, the godmother covers him with seven objects, including a whip and a knife for a boy, and a mirror and a comb for a girl.
Birth traditions in Kazakhstan continue long after the labor and delivery. On the fortieth day a young sheep is sacrificed, from whose meat a rich broth is boiled, designed to restore the strength of the infant’s mother. Guests participating in the feast take turns biting off meat from the cervical vertebra. The new mother takes the first bite and the godmother the last. The remaining bone is planted on a stick and left on the female side of the yurt, to be removed only when the child can confidently hold his head up.
Also on the fortieth day, the child is bathed in a bowl of saltwater, on the bottom of which coins and jewelry are laid. After bathing, the baby is sprinkled with forty spoons of special ritual water, and the women participating in the ritual take jewelry from the bowl as a gift. The baby’s nails and hair are then cut for the first time.
After these rituals comes the at-koyu or azan shakyr, when the baby is given a name. The old men of the village gather, and the eldest relative reveals the name of the child. After this, the mullah recites a prayer and whispers the name three times into the infant’s ear.
One of the final childbirth traditions of Kazakhs occurs when the child begins to walk independently, and a ceremony known as tusau kesu is held. The baby’s legs are tied with a black and white woolen cord, and a respected woman cuts the rope. The cord is burned, and it’s believed that after this the child enters a new stage in his or her life.
When boys are 5-7 years old, they are circumcised in a ceremony known as sundet toi. In honor of this event a big celebration is held, and many gifts presented to the child.
In general, Kazakhs are very kind to children. For example, it’s customary to give treats or gifts to any child who comes to visit. It’s believed that if the baby does not like visiting, good luck will depart from the home.