HEARTS RIPE FOR HARVEST: A CONFUSION OF CELEBRATIONS
Traditional Christmas, Orthodox Christmas and Not Christmas at All
If you thought the bearded man in the picture was Santa Claus dressed in blue, you could easily be forgiven the mistake. In Azerbaijan, he’s Father Frost and he’s part of their New Year Festivities.
Celebrations and religious observations around the winter solstice are as old as mankind and while there are many differences from place to place, there are almost as many similarities. A few common threads seem to be a tree, gift-giving, and feasting, but from there it can go almost anywhere.
December 25th is accepted as the traditional date for Christmas in most of the Western world, a date based on the Gregorian calendar. Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar, so December 25th falls 13 days later on January 7th. This fact alone is enough to confuse an Unbeliever, but throw in a little Soviet influence and it becomes impossible to parse out exactly what a holiday one is celebrating.
New Year, Novruz and Nyet
In Azerbaijan, even trying to celebrate the New Year can seem akin to shooting at a moving target. Traditionally, Azerbaijanis have celebrated the New Year in conjunction with the Vernal Equinox, which falls around March 20. They called it Novruz. Originally, this was a holy day of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religious tradition that predates both Christianity and Islam. Zoroastrianism was popular during the Persian Empire under kings like Cyrus the Great, many centuries before Christ. The Novruz traditions have been around so long they have lost most of their religious meaning and have become the most beloved holiday of most countries once associated with Persia.
The Novruz New Year tradition coincided with the Islamic calendar and was celebrated alongside Muslim traditions. However, in the 19th century, Azerbaijan fell under the influence of the Russian Empire. Western traditions like Christmas and the Gregorian New Year were observed mid-winter, but Azerbaijanis kept celebrating Novruz in the spring.
Enter the Soviets. Traditional regional observations or celebrations of any sort were discouraged under their regime, especially if there were any hint of religion. Novruz was outlawed, because of it’s links to Islam, even though the tradition actually dated back to the earlier Zoroastrians. The Soviet Union declared the New Year would be celebrated on the night of December 31st, just like it was in Russia. The Azerbaijani traditions of Novruz were officially moved to New Years Eve, though some families continued to privately keep the traditional Novruz in Spring. For good measure, they added in Father Frost and the Snow Maiden to the wintertime celebration, something they borrowed from the Russians who came before the Soviet takeover.
Azerbaijani Celebrations Today
Exit the Soviets. Traditional Novruz festivities are returned to March 20th, but nowadays it is stripped of all it’s religious meaning. It is merely the celebration of the coming of spring, in much the same way as Easter is celebrate by non-religious people in the West (except that Easter is on the first full moon after the vernal equinox to continue the confusion).
December 31st is a holiday called “International Solidarity Day of Azerbaijanis”. At midnight the New Year arrives and Azerbaijanis rush into the streets to see firework displays. These celebrations are made even more festive, because Azerbaijani-speaking Iranians visit the homeland of their heart to spend time with their family and friends. Traditional national dishes are served along with plenty of wine. For good measure, there is a New Year Tree and visits from Shakta Baba (Father Frost) and Karkyz (the Snow Maiden).
Christmas is celebrated in private by Believers in Azerbaijan (on December 25th by Evangelical Christians and on January 7th by Orthodox tradition). Recognizing the recurring influx of Azerbaijani-speaking Iranians, Believers will meet the visitors with gift bags at the border. Tucked among the Clementines, pastries and other goodies are New Testaments and many prayers. In fact, GHM donated to one of these distributions this year.
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