Nauryz is probably the nation’s most important holiday, even more significant for Kazakh people than Independence Day. The greatest spring holiday of Persian- and Turkic-speaking nations symbolises awakening and renewal of nature, unity of people and beginning of the New Year. The oriental New Year has been celebrated by many cultures for more than 5,000 years. Having a pagan origin, the celebration is not related to religion. Nauryz, signifying the spring equinox, is celebrated on March 22 in Kazakhstan, the day when the celestial bodies of constellations and stars come to the point of their original residence after a yearlong cycle and start a new circle.
“Nauryz signifies hope for a new life when nature wakes up from winter slumber. The celebration of Nauryz implies many customs and traditions. From ancient times, the oriental New Year celebration was a very important event for every family. People began preparing for the festive day in advance, cleaning up farms and houses, wearing elegant traditional clothes and cooking delicious meals symbolising wealth and abundance in the coming year,” said Associate Professor at Ryskulov Kazakh Economic University Aizhan Shynybekova in an interview with EdgeKz.
In the 11th Century, great scholar, poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam noticed that celestial objects, carrying a full cycle, come to the point of their original residence and begin a new path. After observing years of the movement, Khayyam created a new calendar, named in honour of reigning Seljuk sultan Jalal-al-Din Malik Shah (Jalali or Maliki calendar). He used the natural beginning of the year, the day when the sun enters the Aries constellation and the first day after the spring equinox, as the basis for his calendar. Many believe the ancient calendar was more accurate than the one used today. Inaccuracy in the astronomical Maliki calendar, numbering 324 days a year, equals .0002 days, and less than the current one, which counts 365 days.
The ancient holiday, which arose in the preliterate era before the emergence of modern religions and many countries, is celebrated as a renewal and purification from sins, cleansing clothes and purifying homes from evil and hatred. People were encouraged to forgive relatives and friends for their sins and evil. On this day wise elders reconciled warring clans, urging them to stop wars and conflicts.
According to legend, on the evening of March 21-22 the mythical spirit of the wise elder Kadyr Ata was visiting a house. Kazakhs tried to stay awake that night. Unmarried girls were preparing a feast, slightly opening the window and putting a bowl of flour on the table. If the home was clean and the owners were people of noble souls, Kadyr Ata blessed the house.
The word Nauryz means “new day” in the Persian language; Kazakhs call it Ulystyn uly kuni, (“the great day of the people”). Nowadays, Nauryz has become a national holiday of spring, work and unity. The festival brings together Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Koreans and other representatives of the 130 ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan. The ancient holiday has harmoniously transformed into modern life and now plays a major role in strengthening friendship and unity in society.
“According to the old saying, when Nauryz enters the house, all diseases and failure leave the house and stay away from family members. On the day of the Nauryz celebration, everyone tries to stay in a good mood, expressing best wishes to relatives and friends. In the old days, people cooked a traditional meal of bull meat at noon on a green hill. Ancestors believed that the meat of a strong animal, like a bull, would give strength and endurance to people. All bowls in the house were filled with milk, spring water and ayran (a chilled yogurt beverage mixed with salt) and grain, representing the wish for a rich harvest, fertility and health,” said Shynybekova.
Nationwide festivities always accompanied the Nauryz holiday. Youth gathered at the Altybakan (literally “six pillars”), a large hanging swing of nomadic people. Young men and women sang folk songs, danced and played traditional games. Kazakh people often held competitions among young men in the fighting or horse races in the villages. Traditional games, named Aikysh-uikysh (literally “towards each other”) during which horsemen should knock their opponents out of the saddle, and Kokpar, the ancestor of modern-day polo, were the most loved ones. Sometimes, young men competed in the ability to stay in the saddle even with girls. Kyz Kuu (“catch the maiden”) is a popular form of horse racing among nomadic people, when a man on horseback chases after a girl and tries to kiss her while she defends with a whip.
Nauryz was a great chance for singers to demonstrate their art. Celebrations ended with aitys, a performance where two poets/improvisers showed their skills. Songs and dances ended when the sun rose over the horizon. People then set a bonfire and went around the village with lighted torches, singing and dancing, thus completing the celebration of the spring equinox and renovation.
Modern holiday celebrations differ from the ancient customs. Nowadays, citizens hold fundraising campaigns and national sports games, organise works to keep the landscape fresh and attractive, plant trees and clean parks and other recreational areas, streets and squares. Festivities feature theatrical performances at city squares with richly decorated yurts (traditional nomad houses) and the national Kara Zhorga dance is performed by young people in traditional dresses. All guests are invited to try national and international cuisine from the festive table.
Given various national characteristics, people in Turkic countries celebrate Nauryz in different ways while sharing one thing in common. All are involved in the ritual of preparing special food named Nauryz Kozhe which consists of seven components: water, meat, salt, oil, flour, cereals and milk. The number seven itself is a sacred character in the Turkic culture. The seven components of Nauryz Kozhe reflect the seven elements of life and seven days of the week, implying eternity, and the huge pot symbolises unity.
According to Kazakh mythological beliefs, happiness walks around the earth on the eve of the holiday. Nauryz is a day when goodness and peace are coming to earth, flowers are blooming, twittering birds are filling the spring day with warmth and joy and lush green grass starts appearing above the ground.
Nauryz was not celebrated nationally in Kazakhstan from 1926-1988, but people began celebrating the holiday widely in the early 1990s after the country declared its independence. In 2001, Nauryz was declared a national holiday and since 2009 has been celebrated for three consecutive days, March 21-23, designated as non-working days.
Today, this warm holiday is equally dear to all peoples living in multinational Kazakhstan. Nauryz has harmoniously transformed into modern life, preserving the continuity of ancient traditions. Regardless of gender, age and social status, people are exempted from duties and participate in festivities together.
“Thanks to President Nazarbayev, we Koreans are living in Kazakhstan in peace and friendship with people of different nationalities. Nauryz is a symbol of happiness, a renewal of nature and life on the earth. We are happy to live harmoniously in our stunning capital. Every year, we gather at a festive table full of sweets and national dishes of Kazakhs and Koreans and celebrate the New Year setting new goals for the next year,” Astana resident Alexey Lyu told the magazine.
On Sept. 30, 2009, Nauryz was included in the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. March 21 was subsequently announced as the International Day of Nowruz (Nauryz).