By Zena Waters

For Azerbaijanis, "Novruz" (translated as "new day"), which celebrates the New Year and the arrival of Spring, is the most ancient and cherished holiday on the Azeri calendar. Celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox (March 20-21), Novruz represents nature, renewal and fertility. Historians have said that the history of Novruz goes back as far as 5,000 years, when ancient Sumerians, Babylonians and Akkadians celebrated it. Other countries in Central Asia such as Turkmenistan, Kyrgyz- stan, Uzbekistan, Ka- zakhstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, also celebrate this special holiday, although during the Soviet period it was given unofficial status and even prohibited.

There are a number of age-old traditions with Novruz that Azerbai- janis have maintained over the generations, and are now free to celebrate publicly. Preparations for Novruz begin long before the holiday with spring-cleaning, planting trees, making new clothes, painting eggs, preparing national dishes such as shakarbura and pakhlava, with the one essential item being "semeni" - sprouts of wheat. Celebrations begin four weeks before the actual day of festivity. Each Tuesday of these four weeks is devoted to one of the four elements and is named accordingly, so there is Water Tuesday, Flame Tuesday, Earth Tuesday and Wind Tuesday According to folk lore, Water renews and refreshes nature, Fire is a symbol of rebirth, Earth signifies the revival of the earth and Wind opens the buds to announce the arrival of Spring.

Thus, the celebrations begin with the first Tuesday, or Water Tuesday, when most Azeris light small fires on the street, in courtyards or gateways, as a tribute to fire-worshipping. Indeed, fires are lit on each Tuesday preceding Novruz. On the last Tuesday, all members of the Azerbaijani community are expected to jump over the fire as an act of purification. On the eve of Novruz, families visit the graves of relatives as an act of remembrance at this special time and then, in the evening, the whole family gathers together to enjoy the various traditional dishes. The holiday continues for several days and ends with festive public dancing, folk bands and sports contests.

The Novruz holiday is really a family time, a time when old disputes are laid to rest, and distant relatives and friends visit to share in the celebrations. Younger Azerbaijanis visit older and elderly relatives, bringing them pakhlava and shakarbura to eat as well as gifts. So Novruz signifies not only the New Year and arrival of Spring but also represents unity, love and respect for old traditions and customs.

As with Christmas in the West, Novruz is enjoyed particularly by young children. They are given sweets and cookies as well as presents and sometimes money or gold jewelry. They carry out traditional games or tricks, such as laying a cap outside the door of a relative or neighbor, knocking the door and then hiding until the cap is filled with sweets by the person living there. Jumping over the small fires is also a fun experience for children as well as adults.

So, in the true spirit of Spring, we wish Happy Novruz to you all! May you have a long, healthy and prosperous life!

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