by Tahir Shahbazov
 Spring in Amirjan, Absheron Peninsula
The Novruz holiday, which celebrates the start of spring, may be the best known of Azerbaijan’s traditional festivals, but it is far from the only one. The calendar is rich in seasonal holidays and special days, all closely connected to nature and rural life. Each of the occasions has its own songs, rhymes and riddles, as do the four seasons, 12 months and other divisions of the year.

To start us off, here’s a taster of riddles about the months and seasons:

Üçü bizə yağıdı,
Üçü cənnət bağıdı,
Üçü yığıb gətirir,
Üçü vurub dağıdı.

Three are merciless to us,
Three are a paradise garden,
Three bring us everything,
Three destroy everything.

Yaz bitirir, yay yetirir, payız kötürür, qış ötürür.
Growing in spring, ripening in summer, harvesting in autumn, eating in winter.

Babamın bir çuxası var, on iki cibi,
Cibin hər birində on iki düymə,
Hər düymənin bir üzü ağ, bi üzü qara.
My grandfather has a coat with twelve pockets,
Twelve buttons lie in those pockets,
One side of each button is white, the other black.

Months of the year

Over the centuries, when Azerbaijanis were closely connected to the land as arable farmers and shepherds, they thought up their own informal names for the months of the year. Changeable March was known as oghlaqqiran – ‘the kid killer’. The story goes that one March an old lady had run out of food for her goats. The weather seemed fine so she let the goats and kids outside to graze, telling the winter to stay away. But the winter was angry at being banished and returned with a vengeance, killing the kids.

April was known as leysan, which means ‘heavy rain’, while May was aghlar-guler, a time for ‘crying and laughing’. Vaynene!, which translates as ‘Oh, grandma!’, was a name for June. This was because the weather in June could suddenly become very hot and dry out the crops in the fields before they could be harvested. July was qorabishiren, the time that ‘the grapes ripen’. August could be quyruq doghan or quyruq doghdu – this translates as ‘growing’ or ‘having grown’ a ‘tail’ and is a reference to the ‘tail’ that becomes visible on the Moon in August. Another name for August was elqovan, the time when people would begin the move from the summer pastures.

September was solyan, which means ‘fading’ or ‘drying out’, a reference to the leaves on the trees and the crops. October was known as elkochdu ¬– ‘the people moved’, a reference to the final migration from the summer pastures. In August, the women and children would move to the lowlands, so that the children could go to school, while the men would remain in the highlands until October with the rest of the animals. A name for November was girovdushan, meaning ‘hoarfrost has come’.

Other names too reflect the rural economy – the sowing month, ploughing month, the red-rose period of spring, the migration month, reaping month, irrigation month, golden autumn, harvest month, leaf fall month and so on.
 Spring in Astara District


In the distant past, our ancestors perceived life dualistically, as a struggle between good and evil, heat and cold, light and dark. Ahead of winter, usually in November, the people would observe special rites, known as Kovsej (Kövsəc), to show the ‘merciless season’ that they were not afraid of it. In every home a table would be laid with a rich selection of warming dishes. One person would be dressed in rags and sit upon a mule, cutting a comic figure. He would be given a plucked, stuffed crow to hold and would have cold water sprinkled on him. Paying no attention to the water, he would shout, “It’s hot!, It’s hot!” The ceremony is redolent with symbols of winter – the infertile mule, unable to produce the next generation, and the crow. Crows are known as heralds of winter; moreover, in Azerbaijani the cawing of the crows is known as as qar, which is also the word for ‘snow’.


According to the folk calendar, winter was divided into three periods, each with its own name based on its own characteristics. The winter season started on 21 December and lasted until 21 March. The first 40 days of winter, from 22 December to 1 February, were called Boyuk chille (the Big Forty Days), or Qaraqish (Black Winter). The second period of 20 days was called Kichik chille (the Short Period) and the last 30 days Boz ay (the Grey Month). The period when the two chilles meet was known as the ‘handover’ or ‘surrender’ period.

The first day of Boyuk chille – the longest night and shortest day of the year – was called shabi-yelda or Chille bayrami. In celebrations similar to Kovsej, tables were laid at home with a wealth of warming dishes. Bonfires were lit and jumped over and samani, or green shoots, were grown from wheat seeds. Halva was also cooked from the sprouting wheat. Water melon would be specially kept from summer and cut and eaten on the Chille holiday. Known as chille qarpizi (chille water melon), the water melon would also be sent as part of a tray (khoncha), filled with sweets and fruits, to the homes of girls engaged to be married. As an old folk rhyme says:

Bu qarpız çilə qarpız,
Düşübdü dilə qarpız,
Dolubdu xurcunlara,
Gedir yar gilə qarpız.

This is a chille watermelon,
Everybody’s talking about it,
We stuffed the saddlebags with melons,
And sent them to my sweetheart.

During Boyuk chille, which was considered relatively “kind”, farmers would prepare the land ahead of the coldest period of winter and clean the irrigation ditches and channels. Our forefathers said that in Boyuk chille “the land becomes mature”.

While Kichik chille began in early February and lasted only 20 days, it was usually much tougher than Boyuk chille. Known as “the hardest time of the winter” or “the naughty little brother”, this was a period of very cold weather with storms and frost.

There is an anthropomorphic tale of the time when Boyuk chille and Kichik chille met. They greeted each other and talked about how they dealt with people. Angry Kichik chille reproached kind Boyuk chille, saying, “Eh, you are very weak. I will go and freeze the foals in the horses’ wombs, the young wives’ hands in the bowls of dough.” Boyuk chille responded, “Stop boasting! Your life is short, spring is coming.”

Khidir Nebi

During the first ten days of Kichik chille, the Khidir Nebi ceremony was held. Khidir Nebi is a white haired old man, the embodiment of winter. As the saying goes, “Khidir came, winter came. Khidir left, winter left”. This means that Khidir Nebi comes in the hardest time of winter, when people need material and moral support, and helps them.
 Coloured eggs are another Novruz tradition

In mythological thought, Khidir Nebi is considered the god or saint of greenery. To celebrate his arrival, people would grind roasted wheat in hand-mills, and dye eggs yellow, red, and green – the colours of the sun and spring. They would collect sticks of apple wood, put cotton balls soaked in oil on the end and light them like candles. Roasted wheat would be placed somewhere in the house – either in a cupboard or on open shelves – so that Khidir could come on his grey horse, touch the wheat and bring abundance to the home.

According to ancient beliefs, it was important for every home, every family, to prepare for the Khidir Nebi ceremony. People would help the poor on the eve of the holiday. If one family did not lay the table because of a lack of food, it was thought that Khidir would see this as disrespect and leave, thereby delaying spring. As the following verse says:

Xanım ayağa dursana,
Yük dibinə varsana,
Boşqabı doldursana,
Xıdırı yola salsana...

Khanim, get up,
Fill your pockets,
Fill your plates,
See Khidir on his way.

…Xızıra Xıdır deyərlər,
Yoluna çıraq qoyarlar,
Xıdırı saymayanın,
Gözlərini oyarlar.

…They call Khidir Khizir,
And set lamps along his way,
They may gouge out the eyes
Of whomever disregards Khidir.

It is also worth mentioning that placenames in Azerbaijan, such as Khidirzinda, Khizi and Khizir dashi, are thought to be related to Khidir Nebi and his prototypes Khidir Ilyas and Khizir.


The last period of winter, which had various names including Boz ay (Grey Month), Alacholpa (Fiery Stallion), Ala chille (Fiery chille) or Bosh gish (Empty Winter), started after Kichik chille. The adjective boz in Azerbaijani means the colour ‘grey’ and ‘strict’ or ‘stern’ in character. Both these meanings probably lie behind the name Boz ay.

According to legend, when people divided the year into months, only a few days were left for Boz ay. The months consulted amongst themselves and each month gave a few of its days to Boz ay. That’s why in this month, the weather often changes and it is possible to see the signs of almost all the seasons.

Boz ay is subdivided into chillebeche (‘small chille’), each consisting of seven days. Preparations for the Novruz holiday begin at this time. According to tradition, on each of the four Tuesdays of the month of Boz ay, one of the elements of nature (water, fire, wind and earth) wakes up from its winter hibernation. By 21 March the revival of nature is complete.

The different regions of Azerbaijan have different names for the Tuesdays. The first Tuesday, known most widely as Su chershenbesi (Water Tuesday), is also called Ezel chershenbe (the First Tuesday), Toz chershenbe (Dusty Tuesday) and Mujdechi chershenbe (Herald Tuesday). Od chershenbesi (Fire Tuesday) is sometimes called Kul or Kule chershenbe (Ash Tuesday). Yel chershenbesi (Wind Tuesday) is also known as Gul chershenbe (Flower Tuesday). Torpaq chershenbe (Earth Tuesday) is also known as Yer chershenbe (Land Tuesday), Oluler chershenbesi (the Tuesday of the Dead) and Ata-baba gunu (Fathers and Grandfathers Day). Since this is the last week of the year, the day is also known as Akhir chershenbe (Last Tuesday), Ilakhir chershenbe (Last Tuesday of the Year) and Boyuk chershenbe (Great Tuesday).

The equinox on 21 March, when day and night are the same length, is still celebrated as the first day of spring and is a national holiday. The four days after 21 March are traditionally called spring, summer, autumn and winter. Depending on the weather on each of those days, the people could predict what the seasons would be like that year.


The traditional name for the period from 21 March to the end of April is Qarayaz or Black Spring. This is the time when the people’s stores of fuel, food and fodder are beginning to run out, but no new resources have come to replenish the stocks. Other names for this period include oghlaqqiran (‘destroying kids’ – the name is mentioned above as it is also given to the month of March), danagiran (‘destroying cattle’) or Maharram malgiran (‘the month destroying cattle’). Some longer sayings also describe the month: ‘Forty burnt stumps, forty sacks of chaff, have mercy, God’; ‘The sheep will not be fed, they will go and not come back, they will sleep and not wake up’.

During Qarayaz, people tilled the land. According to tradition, if tillage started on the first day of the season, 21 March, it would be more productive.

Qarayaz was followed by a 10-day period in which “the swallow builds a nest” (22 April – 2 May). This was the time when people made bricks and built houses. Bricks made during this period were considered very durable and solid.
 Autumn at Nohur Lake, Qabala District

The next period of spring was called the Tilling Time or the Ploughing Period. This period starts when the first 40 days of spring are over and lasts one month. Old people, adults and children would gather at the sowing area to watch the ploughing of the first furrow. To mark the first day of sowing, the people would light bonfires on mountain tops and call everybody to work in the fields and make the soil fertile and would wish each other an abundant harvest.

This is the time that the shepherds would take their animals to the summer pastures – the alpine plateaux of the Greater Caucasus, Lesser Caucasus and Talish mountains.

The last 20 days of spring are known as the Red Rose Period or “the time to reap the barley”. This was a difficult time, as foodstocks had run out but the grain harvest had only just started.


Summer starts on 22 June, the summer solstice when the day is longest and the night shortest. After 22 June, the days gradually become shorter and the nights longer until the winter solstice on 22 December.

The first 45 days of summer, from 22 June, are known as the jirjirama dovru (grasshopper time) – the Azerbaijani word jirjirama is onomatopoeic, jirjir mimicking the distinctive sound made by grasshoppers and crickets), gorabishen or anjir bishen (‘ripening the grapes or figs’), in other words the hottest month of summer. Another agricultural name for this period is bichin vakhti, ‘reaping time’.

The second 45-day period of summer is called quyruq doghdu, which, as I mentioned above, translates as ‘having grown’ a ‘tail’ and is a reference to the ‘tail’ that becomes visible on the Moon in August. This was an essential time for everyone who worked on the land, whether arable farmers or shepherds. Our forefathers called it quzu qarishan (‘mixing the lambs’) or ballı ay, ‘the honey month’, as this was the time that bees are busiest making honey.

Rain rites

Since summer is a crucial season for agriculture, both arable farmers and shepherds performed various ceremonies and rites to ensure the weather was as favourable as possible. These included a rain dance to summon rain and another dance to stop the rain.

One rite to summon rain was called Musallah. Often but not always on a Friday, all the people of the village, including women and children, would climb barefoot and bareheaded up the nearest mountain. (In popular beliefs, the high peaks were considered close to God.) They often took their sheep with them too. On the mountain top, they would pray and ask for rain. With the children crying and the sheep bleating, this created a moving spectacle. God would see this, take pity on the people and send them rain. And in some cases it even started to rain before the people had got back down the mountain.

An Arab geographer of the 12th century, Abu Hamid al-Andalusi al-Garnati, wrote that he saw a stone in the city square in Ardabil. When there was no rain, the stone would be brought to Ardabil. When the rain became too heavy, the stone would be taken away and the rain would stop. Al-Garnati described this as “one of the miracles of the world”.

There is said to be a similar stone in the village of Piral in Qusar District in the north-east of Azerbaijan. In the northern Ismayilli District on Baba Mountain is an old shrine called Hazra, which belongs to the Shikh family (Shikh is a colloquial version of Sheikh). The family has a rain stone called the Baba Stone, taken from Baba Mountain, which they carefully preserve and take out to drought-stricken villages.

It may be hard to believe in arid Baku, but sometimes in the mountain areas people had to try to stop the endless rain before it washed away the crops. The various anti-rain ceremonies included Qodu-Qodu, ‘Taking Lady Ladle for a Walk’ and ‘Tying the Heads of 40 Bald Men’. Qodu is a colloquial word for gunesh or Sun, so Qodu-Qodu is a ceremony to summon the Sun. One young person or child from the village would be chosen to play Qodu and they would lead the other children from house to house, singing a special song and seeking a contribution for Qodu – sweets or money.
 A Novruz bonfire

‘Taking Lady Ladle for a Walk’ is a similar rite. Lady Ladle, or Chomchakhatun, is a ladle, dressed in cloths to look like a doll. The children would take Lady Ladle from house to house, singing a special song. At each house they would be given sweets and some water would be poured into the bowl of Chomchakhatun’s ladle. The children would eat the sweets and pour the water from the ladle into the roots of a tree and then hang Lady Ladle from the branches.

In ‘Tying the Heads of 40 Bald Men’, a young man would walk around the village with a rope, asking for the names of all the bald men living there. For each name he would tie a knot in the rope. Bald men were chosen for the ceremony, as they had no hair to be soaked by the rain.

Wind rites

The Yel Baba or Grandfather Wind ceremony is another ritual to stop the rain. The following verses would be sung as part of the ritual:

Yel baba əsdi neynim,
Dolunu kəsdim neynim,

Çəkirəm yar qüssəsin,
Falım da nəsdi, neynim.

Mən aşiq qolu güclü,
Kəsibdi yolu güclü,
Yel əssin, bulud getsin,
Yağmasın dolu güclü.

Grandfather Wind blew
And stopped the hail,
I long for my love,
My fate is bad, what can I do?

The heavy rain has blocked the roads,
Come, Wind, blow away the clouds
And stop this downpour.

People would also summon the wind when it was time to thresh and winnow the grain, as wind would help remove the chaff. They sang such verses:

A Yel baba, Yel baba,
Qurban sənə, gəl baba.
Buğdamız yerdə qaldı,
Yaxamız əldə qaldı...

Oh, Grandfather Wind,
Please come, Grandfather.
Our wheat is left in the fields,
So we are left in debt…


Autumn lasted from 21 September to 21 December. This was the time when farmers completed the harvest and brought their sheep and cattle down to their winter pastures. The people called this period el-ayaghin choldan yighilmasi dovru, ‘the time when people collect everything from outside’. It was also the time of the autumn sowing, when the foundations for the next harvest were laid.

Another name for the beginning of autumn in the Azerbaijani countryside is qochqarishan (‘mixing rams’). This was the time that the farmers let the rams into the flocks of ewes and was widely celebrated by shepherds and stock farmers.

Those growing crops and vegetables held harvest festivals at this time. An historic name for the harvest holiday is Mihrijan.

Azerbaijan’s folk calendar and traditions are closely connected to the land and seasons. They are a reflection both of the people’s way of life and their way of looking at life. While some rites and ceremonies may seem quaint or archaic, their purpose and the philosophy behind them remain as relevant today as ever.


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About the author: Tahir Shahbazov is a lead researcher at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography. A doctor of history, he is the author of monographs and articles on the historical ethnography of Azerbaijan.