Central Asians who work in the financial sector in the UK may have noticed a strange coincidence: their traditional festival of Nauruz falls at almost the same time (6 April) as the start of the financial year here. Why is this? The explanation for such a surprising convergence lies in different, but ultimately related, historical traditions. To start with the Central Asian experience: The festival (known variously as Nauruz, or Nowruz, or Nowryz ̶ it has many regional forms) is a joyous celebration of the start of ‘New Year’. The literal (Persian) meaning is ‘New Day’, and it marks the Spring Equinox, thus bidding farewell to winter and looking ahead to summer. It is now celebrated in many parts of the world, but its origins lie in the heartlands of Eurasia. Historical evidence suggests that it was an Iranian tradition, closely tied to the teachings and beliefs of Zoroastrianism ‒ the world’s oldest surviving creedal religion (at least a millennium older than Christianity). This celebration of the turning point of the year was eventually adopted by the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, and then, through migrations, conquests and cultural osmosis, spread to Turkey, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, parts of the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.
The religious origin of Nauruz is reflected in traditional celebrations, which are full of mystical meaning, communicated through certain fixed conventions. The most recognizable of these is the laying of a table with seven items (all beginning with the letter S in Persian): these include a dish of green shoots, apples, garlic, vinegar and so on. Spiritually and materially, it is a time of new beginnings – a time to set one’s affairs in order. This means spring cleaning the home and donning new clothes, but it is also a time for mending relationships, and resolving disputes: a time for forgiveness, a time for spiritual regeneration. After the adoption of Islam, the religious significance of Nauruz was restricted to followers of the Zoroastrian faith, but as a folk festival, it remained a vibrant part of popular life in Iran, as in all the lands that were influenced by Iranian culture.
When Nauruz was adopted by the Central Asians, it was naturalised, moulded by local custom, and incorporated into annual festivities. It lost its religious significance, but it continued to mark a time for a fresh starts ̶ a time for cleaning, polishing and fumigating one’s belongings, as well as a time for reconciliation, for coming together as families and communities. This bonding experience was celebrated and enhanced by festivities and feasting. During the years of Soviet rule the public celebration of Nauruz was banned on the grounds that it was a religious superstition and a bourgeois nationalist tradition – serious offences at that time. Nevertheless, in private, some people continued to observe it, and in 1988, during perestroika, public festivities were again allowed. I myself remember the timid delight of people as they celebrated Nauruz in the open ̶ the first time that the younger generation were able to experience this.
A few years later came independence. Since then, in all the Central Asian states, Nauruz has become a national celebration and a designated public holiday. It is marked by official pronouncements and messages of goodwill, as well as by colourful public entertainments in town centres, squares and parks – parades, dances, acrobatic performances, displays of horsemanship, wrestling competitions – and of course, feasting. Yet away from the public festivites, Nauruz is still primarily a time of unity, of friendship and communal solidarity. Each society has its own way of marking the occasion. Special savoury dishes are prepared, as well as a range of sweetmeats. These are shared with everyone ‒ family, friends and strangers.
In Uzbekistan, the main event is the preparation of a porridge-like dish called sumalak. It is a massive undertaking, requiring considerable planning and finesse. The basic ingredient is wheat, which is soaked for days in water, until it sprouts. The timing is crucial – if it is not correctly judged, the dish will be ruined. When the wheat is ready, water, oil and flour (sometimes other grains as well) are added, brought to the boil and stirred over a fire for up to 14 hours. Seven small stones (reminiscent of the Iranian ‘seven table items’) are put at the bottom of the pan to stop the mixture sticking. Traditionally this dish is prepared by women, who spend whole night watching and stirring the pot while they sing, gossip and exchange confidences.
But how does the British financial calendar fit into all of this? The answer takes us directly to the heart of the meaning of Nauruz: in other words, to a time of new beginnings, new hope, and the start of a new annual cycle. In Medieval Europe, the civil, legal and financial year was tied to the Christian liturgical calendar. In this calendar, the Spring Equinox ushers in two crucial events. Firstly, there is Lady Day, celebrated on 25 March, the date on which the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Christ child in December. This was the physical embodiment of new life. And on Lady Day, worldly affairs were put in order: the slate, so to speak, was wiped clean as debts were forgiven, new contracts signed, and new jobs started.
But it was paralleled by a second new beginning ̶ Easter ̶ the feast which signifies spiritual rebirth through the crucifixion and resurrection. This feast was marked by the giving of eggs ̶ symbols of new life ̶ but also by signs of friendship, generosity and joy. The similarities with Nauruz are obvious and this is not surprising, because both traditions, despite socio -religious accretions, are rooted in an ancient, and common, Indo-European cultural heritage.
Over time, divergences have emerged, particularly in the dating system. Throughout Europe, the old Roman calendar, established by Julian Caesar, was gradually replaced by the Gregorian, introduced in 1582; concurrently, the start of the New Year was shifted to the beginning of January. The Julian and Gregorian calendars were slightly different in length, hence 13 days were lost (thus 1 January now corresponded to 13 January of the old calendar). The calendar reform took place in England in 1752. However, the financial sector maintained the tradition of starting the annual cycle on Lady Day, which moved from 25 March to 6 April – and this is still the date on which our modern financial year begins. It is worth noting that the date of Easter was not affected by the change of calendar, because it is calculated according to the lunar cycle, which has a slightly different time span. (The Russian Orthodox liturgical year still adheres to the Julian calendar; hence the Orthodox Christmas is celebrated 13 days later than in the Western church).
So, to return to Nauruz: Today, the celebration of this festival has become such a significant event that in 2009, it was inscribed in UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognising 21 March as the International Day of Nauruz. And as Nauruz comes to be internationalised, so it begins to blend with other customs and traditions. Thus, in some places Easter eggs are now regarded as part of Nauruz, just as Nauruz celebrations start to merge with Easter. And so, as some of you start to grapple with end-of year accounts – you might like to remember that this, too, is part of the Nauruz message of new beginnings, new hope.
Happy Nauruz, happy Easter, happy new financial year to you all!!!!
Shirin Akiner, London, March 2018