The Celebration of Yennayer/Amazigh New Year

Traditions and beliefs among several Imazighen

The following is an anthropological look at the celebration of Yennayer, by Habiba Boumlik, who presented the material at the Yennayer 2951 celebration in New York, January 20, 2001. Ms. Boumlik, an anthropologist, recently published "Rahma et Sou'dia" (Voices from Morocco; Voix Du Maroc. L'Association Méditerranéens, Winter 199-2000).

The purpose here is not to discuss the Amazigh(1) calendar nor the issues related to the origin of Imazighen. I am just relating a few traditions related to the celebration of Yennayer (on January 12th) in some areas of the large land of Tamazghra* as they had been described at the beginning of the twentieth century by some French ethnographers since our ancestors didn’t keep records of their practices and since these traditions are unfortunately in the process of disappearing if we don’t act efficiently in order to save them.

Let us first mention how some scholars explain the inception of the Amazigh calendar. According to them, the origin of Yennayer refers to the first mention of the Amazigh people in historical records: the founding by Amazigh Pharaoh Sheshonq I of the 22nd pharaonic dynasty in 950 BC, followed by the 23rd and 24th Amazigh pharaonic dynasties, over 200 years (950 BC-712 BC) of Amazigh rule in ancient Egypt. According to ancient Egyptian historian Manetho (3rd century BC) and archeological records, the Amazigh Pharaonic dynasties brought back stability to Egypt by reunifying it and defending it against foreign invasion from the East.

In summary, Yennayer 2951 that we celebrate this year commemorates the first mention of the Amazigh people in history. Significantly, it refers to Imazighen as the contributors to the glorious Egyptian civilization.

The fact that the Amazigh calendar is related to the pharaonic history does not lead us to conclude an ancient Egyptian origin of Imazighen nor should we infer from the Latin names of our calendar (Yennayer, febrayer…) that Imazighen were Roman. The phenomenon of diffusion and linguistic borrowing are common among all civilizations. But it will still be interesting to find out why the Imazighen still use a calendar nowadays, as well as names of many plants, that have Latin roots. The linguistic borrowing can fill a gap (we see such a practice today with computer terminology: we use the English jargon whether we communicate in French, Arabic or Tamazight. Such terminology is missing unless we create neologisms). The linguistic borrowing can also supply existing words (we observe such phenomenon with arabization, for example, of terms used to count: wahed, tnin, tlata instead of yan, sin, krad for 1, 2, 3).

Now, how was Yennayer celebrated among the Imazighen in their geographical, historical and cultural diversity?

Edmond Destaing, a scholar who carried long research on Imazighen, especially Ichelhiyn, reports in 1905 that the Beni Snous (Kef and Khemis), the Yennayer holiday, was celebrated for 5 to 7 days during which people only ate cold meals. We see here an example of analogical thinking: eating cold to be in accordance with nature or the cold of the winter. The first day of the celebration, women and children go to the woods or the hills to bring green plants, such as palm (tree), olive (tree), rosemary, fennel, carob tree and so on. They put them out to dry on the terrace. The green stems augurs or foresees a good and green year. We have to keep in mind that traditional societies lived mainly on agriculture. To avoid having a bad year, countrymen stayed away from exposing on their terraces plants such as evergreen oak and thuya, for they are bitter.

Yennayer was also an occasion to build a new fireplace used for cooking purposes. Women demolished the old one and removed the three stones that serve as support for the structure to build a new one. While lunches were necessarily composed of meat, meat was banished from dinners. People only had berkouks (a wheat preparation close to the semolina served in couscous). After dinner, the owner of the house goes out to call his sheep. If they bleat, the agricultural year will be good. If the herd keeps silent, the man goes to see his cows and talks to them. Their lowing is interpreted as a sign of a year possibly prosperous. If the cows stay indifferent, the owner goes to see his goats and calls them. The year will be mediocre if they bleat, and bad if they do not react to his solicitations.

Women try to finish any weaving work. In case they are prevented from doing so, they remove the loom from the house to avoid having disaster rain down on the household. (Such a belief can fight any procrastination!)

Elsewhere, among the Ntifa, people celebrate Yennayer with a vegetable couscous composed of 7 varieties of green plants, such as asparagus, artichokes, leek or cress. At the end of the meal, one of the women in the household takes a handful of couscous and offers it to every member of the family saying: "Here, eat!" Everybody is supposed to answer: "No, I don’t want anymore." According to belief, a person whose hunger is not satisfied that very day will never be filled for the whole year.

The rituals related to the celebration of Yennayer among Ichelhiyn(2) seem to be extremely reduced, possibly because some of its episodes had been captured by Islamic holidays, especially the one called Achoura. In general, the holiday consists of a big meal followed by prognostics regarding the new year. People eat tagulla (a gruel) in some villages, in others, they have berkouks, a wheat grain steamed like couscous and served with melted butter, honey, argan oil or almonds butter, or a couscous with 7 vegetables. In villages close to Tafraout in the southwest of Morocco, they have urkkimn. It’s a heavy meal consisting of white beans, chickpeas, lentils, rice, broad bean, grains of wheat and legs of goat or sheep that had been sacrificed for El Eid (a holiday commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham) and that had been put to dry in the sun. The day after, leftovers are mixed with tagulla (gruel) and served for lunch. Before putting urkkimn to cook or just before serving this dish, a date stone is thrown in the plate. The person who finds it while eating is considered to be lucky during the coming year. This practice can be compared to the commemoration of the Epiphany on January 6th in Europe, during which a "kings cake" is shared between members of family or friends. A porcelain figurine representing a saint or Jesus the child is hidden in the cake. The lucky person who finds it is crowned with a golden paper crown sold with the cake.

In order to bring peace, people avoid fighting on the day of Yennayer; they finish all their duties by noon and spend the afternoon gathering. Women bring grass to the house to augur a prosperous year and paint their hands with henna. If their hands have a nice red color, their buddies greet them and interpret this as a sign that the meal they have prepared (urkkimn) is well done and tasty.

The events happening the first day of the year are thought to have their repercussion on the whole year. If it rains that very day, the year is expected to be rainy. Sometimes, in order to be sure of having a rainy year, some villages proceed to a ritual of sprinkling with water. In other villages, people go to rivers and force themselves to swim in the cold weather of January.

Many other rituals can be mentioned, they all help to forecast the agricultural year or their private life. For instance, people go to listen to conversations behind doors and conclude to a good or a bad year according to the content of the discussion. In some locals, before going to bed, women expose on the terrace 3 small balls of tagulla (gruel) corresponding to the first 3 months of the year (January, February and March) and sprinkle them with salt. The ball for which salt falls into decay corresponds to the month that will be the rainiest.

Nowadays, the celebration –when it takes place- is limited to a special meal like urkkimn, usually prepared in a household with elderly members or to a party usually initiated by young active members of Amazigh movements. In urban societies where most of the Imazighen evolve today, Yennayer should be an occasion not only to learn more about the cultural background of our ancestors, but also to transmit this heritage to the young generation that hardly speaks the language in the immigration environment. To finish with, celebrating Yennayer could also be a step to affirm a fundamental cultural aspect of Imazighen, and further more an attempt to revise or reappraise the official historiography.

Habiba Boumlik**
New York member of ACAA


1. Amazigh, plural Imazighen, refer to the autochtone population of North Africa whose native language is tamazight. The term Berber, largely used in historic and ethnographic literature, is not used by the concerned people and even less in activist circles.
2. Ichelhiyn, plural of Achelhiy, Imazighen whose native language is tachelhiyt spoken in the Anti and Grand Atlas in Morocco.

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