The celebration of the Amazigh New Year has gained – in recent times – additional importance as a means of establishing a vital cultural identity. This tradition, rooted in ancient folk tales, revives North Africa, the equilibrium that man has to strike with nature.
Starting today, Tuesday, January 12th, the Berbers of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and parts of Egypt, as well as the diaspora, are celebrating the Amazigh New Year, which they call “Yennayer”.
2021 corresponds to the year 2971 in the Amazigh calendar. This celebration dates back to ancient times and is rooted in folk tales and myths in North Africa, and it is a revival of the link between the Berbers and the land on which they live, as well as the wealth and generosity of the land. Therefore, January is a celebration of nature, agricultural life, renaissance and abundance, says writer Wisal Harries in a report published by the British Middle East Eye website.
When is January celebrated?
January 12 marks the start of celebrations in Algeria, and the public holiday coincides with the Tapworth Asegas event on the same day. Meanwhile, some Berber groups in Morocco and elsewhere begin their celebrations tomorrow.
The agricultural calendar for the Berbers begins on January 13, and is inspired by the Julian calendar (a calendar imposed by Julius Caesar in the year 46 BC, and entered into force in the year 45 BC, in an attempt to simulate the solar year and it consists of 365.25 days divided into 12 months. It prevailed in North Africa during the Roman domination.
January marks the beginning of what is known as the “black nights”, which last for 20 days, which are among the periods that record low temperatures.
What is the Amazigh calendar?
This calendar began to take an official form in the 1960s when the Berber Academy, an Amazigh cultural association based in Paris, decided to start counting the Amazigh years as of 950 BC. The date was chosen to coincide with the ascension of Pharaoh Sheshonq I to the throne of Egypt.
Shisheng was an Amazigh of Libyan origin, one of the most prominent Berber figures in the ancient history of North Africa. Thus, Amazighs see this date as a symbol of strength and authority.
The author shows that the Amazigh calendar was derived directly from the Julian calendar, which was used in Europe before the Gregorian calendar. And it became the predominant North African organization of agricultural seasons.
When was January first celebrated?
January celebrations go back to ancient times, but it is difficult to establish an exact date. Contrary to popular beliefs, it has nothing to do with the January celebrations of Pharaoh Sheshonq I, as Berbers believe that traditions preceded the arrival of the king.
Many myths and legends have also formed to explain the origin of the celebration, and one popular fairy tale often includes the story of a stubborn old lady.
And the author notes that in Berber traditions, January was originally only 30 days. In myths, it is said that an old woman defied the winter’s anger by taking her goats to graze during the last day of January, and after this month he felt insulted by the arrogance of the woman, he borrowed an additional day from February, and imposed a very cold night on the old woman in revenge.
This allegory expresses the importance of living in harmony with nature, the need for patience and caution. In a region known for its cold winters and summer heat, North Africans faced daunting challenges in protecting their crops and their health.
Who is celebrating?
The Berbers celebrate January, whose culture goes back to pre-Arab North Africa, in addition to the Arab communities in the Maghreb and in Egypt.
Some Arabs in Morocco and Algeria call it “agricultural year.” The “January” celebrations became widely known due to the growing interest of North Africans in Amazigh culture and its origins.
How to prepare
January celebrations are centered on family gatherings and fun music. Mothers interested in party arrangements prepare a feast of traditional foods in preparation for the celebration.
And it has become customary to wear traditional Amazigh costumes and jewelery for this occasion. Keeping up with the values of renewal and life, January has become an occasion to celebrate important life events such as wedding, circumcision and the child’s first haircut.
In some regions of Algeria, January celebrations extend for 3 days. The family gathers daily to eat a festive meal, usually semolina porridge on the first day, couscous with 7 vegetables on the second day, and chicken on the third day. People present their best wishes for the New Year with phrases such as: “Asgas Amgaz” or “Jan Amervo (Happy New Year)”.
Symbolism of the celebrations
January is reminiscent of living in harmony with nature despite its ability to create life-threatening conditions, such as torrential rains, hail and the constant threat of famine. To face these difficulties, the ancient Berber peoples were deifying nature. However, these religious beliefs changed with the arrival of Jewish religions such as Christianity, and later Islam to North Africa, but the custom of celebration continues to this day.
Legend has it that he who eats until full on January will have his year free from famine or poverty. Families also express their wealth by cooking couscous with 7 vegetables and 7 different spices.
In the past, each family member had to eat a chicken alone to the point of satiety, which indicates a guarantee of fullness and prosperity for an entire year. It is also a tradition for women to take some crumbs and spread it outside to insects and birds, a symbolic move to make sure that no creature stays hungry on January.
What do people eat?
As is the case in most North African occasions, couscous is not absent from the dinner tables, as are sweets and pies (also known as sockenaj). Feasts in Algeria include the presentation of the tamina dish, which is a sweet made of roasted semolina mixed with butter and honey, and decorated with cinnamon, in the traditional way.
January and governments
In 2018, Algeria became the first North African country to make January a national holiday, in an effort to recognize the Amazigh culture in the country. But the rest of the countries of the north of the continent did not recognize this occasion.
Does Corona affect the celebrations?
January celebrations this year will be affected by the epidemic, forcing North Africans to avoid large family gatherings, as well as street celebrations. In recent years, Algerian schools have sought to define the value of January by showing plays and choirs in the Berber language. This year, however, such events will be canceled out of respect for the efforts made to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The January celebration aims to acclimate to the harshness of nature and celebrate the human ability to survive and thrive despite all the hardships he faces. So, the pandemic may give us one more reason to feel grateful for our survival and celebration.