FEBRUARY 14 − ST. VALENTINE’S DAY

− Why are you so sad, my son?

− It is a holiday soon, St. Valentine’s Day, and I have no idea what to give my girlfriend as a gift for it. And I do not want it to be something banal.

− Can you tell me about this day, please?

− I myself learned about this popular holiday, when I was studying in Europe. Now it is celebrated in many parts of the world on February 14. Traditionally, people give presents to their loved ones and those dear to them. They can be handmade gifts, flowers, chocolates, toys, and balloons. Valentines, special cards in the shape of a red heart, are the symbol of the holiday. They might have poems or love messages and are known to be a symbolic Valentine’s Day gift.

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There are many traditions honored by lovers on February 14. In recent years, St. Valentine’s Day has grown in popularity, especially among young people. However, it is purely secular. Back in the past, the holiday was widely favored by the Russian nobility. Young girls made silk and lace “valentines” sprayed with perfume, added dried or fresh flowers, and then secretly put them in their sweetheart’s coat pocket, sent them with an errand boy or handed them over personally. It was common practice to hold balls on this day, especially if there were girls of marriageable age in a family and eligible bachelors were invited to attend them.

In other countries, for instance in Canada and Denmark, it is traditional to give dried white flowers to loved ones. In Germany, Austria and Spain people offer fresh red flowers as gifts. In France and Japan it is customary to give jewelry and chocolate figurines respectively. In Italy, February 14 is called a “sweet” day and love messages are sent without a return address. In Australia, this day is celebrated with many festivals, and its popularity is said to be growing every year. People view the occasion as a wonderful opportunity to share their love with their families, friends, neighbors and colleagues in a joyful, cheerful and loud manner.

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− Well, sonny, I don’t think there is anything wrong in following other people’s tradition to express your affection to those you hold near and dear and to create small wonders for them.

Your story reminded me vividly of my old story. Valentine’s Day is not a long tradition in our country, but I have something that can make you happy.

She opened a little hand-painted box and took something amazing out of it: a heart-shaped gilded silver pendant with embossed elements and encrusted with the Turkmens’ most favorite stone – truly beautiful carnelians.

– I would like to show you something, my son: this heart-shaped amulet is our family’s treasure left by your grandmother. Now, you can give your girlfriend a wonderful surprise for Valentine’s Day.

– Mother, will you tell me more about this wonder to behold!

– This is a traditional amulet – asyk. Back in the past, it was an important element of the bridal attire that was closely related to sacred rites. Married women wore these heart-shaped pieces of jewelry on their hair braids. I received the silver asyk pendant as a wedding gift from my husband’s family. But women also wore asyks that belonged to their mothers and grandmothers as they were regarded as family relics.

– Mother, I’m eager to hear about this extraordinary piece in more detail.

– According to popular belief, asyk pendants in the shape of a heart are considered as a symbol of love between spouses. This is what our ancestors said: “They wear thick silver plates (one foot long and wide) shaped like a heart at the ends of their braids… the heavier they are the more stylish”.

Back in the past, changing the bride’s hairstyle and replacing her headwear with that worn by married women was the most fascinating and elaborate part of the marriage ceremony rituals. In fact, it was one of the highlights of the traditional Turkmen wedding.

The bridal headwear was ceremonially changed during a ritual feast, when the woman was dressed in clothes of a different type in the presence of other women. The ceremony was accompanied by other ritual acts that were thought to bless the would-be mother with a long and happy life.

The ritual played a significant role since the traditional headwear showed the woman’s marital status, while reflecting every change in it: headdresses worn by girls, young women engaged to be married, brides, married women, etc.

In strict adherence to ancient rules, married Turkmen women, whose hairstyles differed from those worn by unmarried girls, always covered their hair. While girls were allowed to demonstrate their braids (initially four braids, later replaced by two), married women had to hide their hair under their headdresses.

They wore their hair in two braids down their backs tied together with an embroidered ribbon and decorated with pieces of jewelry.

The ritual marked the end of the woman’s previous life and heralded the beginning of her new life. In sign of her new status, the woman had her four braids taken out and then had her hair arranged in two braids worn by married women. A wife of the bridegroom’s older brother (elti) ran a wooden comb (başdarak) through the bride’s hair, dividing it in sections. Interestingly, by tradition, the bride had to display her unwillingness to change her hairstyle, twisting her braids at the ends and was eventually persuaded to do so after receiving gifts from the bridegroom’s parents: a headscarf (gyňaç) or silver jewelry (şaý).

After that the married woman wore the hairstyle for the rest of her life. Nowadays, the tradition has lost much of its importance and has survived to some extent in rural areas. Asyk pendants were usually given to brides as gifts by their mother-in-laws, and then were handed down from generation to generation.

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Known for their simple and harmonious shapes, these pieces of jewelry worn on hair braids by Turkmen women were adorned with simple, but expressive decorations from twisted wire and were often encrusted with carnelians. They were also decorated with soldered plates with embossment, although rarely.

The Turkmen asyk looks like a heart-shaped plate with thick edges and a rectangular “neck” topped with a tubular shaped part with a hole in it to pass the end of a string through. Its central part is usually encrusted with carnelians, rarely with lapis lazuli and turquoise. Sometimes, several (two or three) asyk pendants are joined together vertically. They are called goşa asyk. The shape of Turkmen asyks is thought to be associated with the shape of ancient clay figurines of Mother Goddess that have survived since early civilizations.

These pendants are adorned with a simple ornament consisting of three double-strand twisted filigree wires and round wires arranged in a zigzag pattern between them. A special board with driven-in nails is used to impart a zigzag appearance to the straight wire. This allows producing long strands with evenly balanced patterns.

Big asyks can be 30 centimeters and more long and are worn down the back; smaller asyks are worn at the ends of two braids tied together. Every piece impresses with its beauty and perfection, although asyks may, at first sight, appear to be utilitarian objects used to secure hair in place.

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− We will present this amulet to your bride at your wedding as a symbol of fidelity. Nowadays, young people do not understand completely the role and true meaning of asyks, but these pendants are now made from polymer clay and fabrics. They can be created as a piece of embroidery or in cooking, etc. Present-day zergers (jewelers) make asyks from silver in the shape of beautiful hearts: earrings, brooches and rings. You can give your girlfriend one of these stylish sets as a gift for St. Valentine’s Day.

Ajap BAYRIEVA, an ethnographer, Ph.D. in History