Norooz, Iranian New Year
Today, March 20 at 10:57 a.m. MT is نوروز Norooz (also spelled Nowruz, lit. translation New Day), the first day of Spring and the beginning of the Persian Solar Calendar. Norooz is usually around March 21 and the exact day and time is announced when the sun is calculated to be directly over the equator, with the sunlight evenly divided between the north and south hemispheres (Spring equinox).
Although celebrated by other ethnic communities, the holiday originated in ancient Persia, rooted in Zoroastrianism (ancient Iranian religion) and has been celebrated for over 3000 years. The Islamic Regime attempted to suppress Norooz following the 1979 Revolution, since the Ayatollahs considered it a pagan celebration and a distraction from the more important Islamic holidays. Their attempts were unsuccessful, and people continued with Norooz’s distinct symbolic ceremonies.
The prelude to Spring starts with khuneh tekuni (literal.‘shaking the house’) meaning major spring cleaning of the house. They scrub the house from the ceiling to the floor, wash everything washable, clean out the ins and outs of all nooks and crannies. The cleaning begins in Esfand (last month of winter) and is finished before Norooz, so that the new Spring is welcomed with freshness.
We had a big house in Esfahan, Iran. My dad hosed down the walls, windows, tiled floors and performed risky gymnastics to get to the fans and the high ceiling. My mom cleaned the kitchen, carpets, etc. and yours truly was in charge of dusting, which usually took no more than 20 minutes. Some years it was a mad dash to finish cleaning before the official time.
The night before the last Wednesday of the year is Chahārshanbe Soori, the festival of fire. Iranians jump over bonfires to burn out bad omen and sickness and receive strength and health in preparation for the new year. (Read more about this ritual here)
Haft-seen table or sofreh (Persians spread cloth on the floor and serve food over) is the principal component of Norooz. This sofreh was originally referred to as Haft-chin, with chin (چین) meaning “to place” and Haft (هفت) meaning ” seven“, as 7 specific items symbolizing seven elements of life in Zoroastrianism: air, earth, fire, water, plants, animals and humans were placed on a spread.
- Mirror: symbolizing sky/air, and later came to mean ‘honesty’
- Apple: sym. earth and later health and beauty
- Candles: sym. fire, and later enlightenment and happiness
- Golab (rosewater): sym. water with magical cleansing powers
- Sabzeh (wheat, barley or lentil sprouts): sym. plants
- Bowl of goldfish: sym. animals and later came to represent life within life
- Painted Eggs: sym. humans and fertility
With the invasion of Sassanid Persia by Arabs, and the heavily enforced Arabic language upon the conquered, Haft-chin came to be known as Haft-seen, since Arabs couldn’t pronounce the ch (چ) sound. The Haft-seen evolved to include items that started with the letter S & (س) in Farsi.
- senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree): symbolizing love
- sīr (garlic): sym. medicine
- sīb (apples): sym. beauty and health
- somaq (ground sumac berries): symb. the color of sunrise and victory of good over evil
- serkeh (vinegar): symbo. age and patience
- Sekkeh (Coins): sym. wealth
Other supplemental items may include:
- Sonbol (Hyacinth) or daffodils sym. plant
- Samanu (a very rich and sweet pudding made from germinated wheat) sym. affluence
- Sa’at (clock/watch): to tell time by during the count down
- A holy book: Originaly a poetry book (almost always either the Shahnameh or the Divan of Hafez) and later replaced by Quran in the more religious households
- traditional Iranian pastries such as naan-nokhodchi and other sweets like noghl and baqlava
- Aajeel – nuts and dried berries, raisins and toot.
In association with “rebirth and renewal of nature” it is customary for everybody in the household to buy at least one set of new clothes, wash up and wear it, when everybody is gathered, awaiting the exact moment of the arrival of the spring at Haft-seen. At the strike of the clock, indicating the New Year, prayers are offered for health, happiness and prosperity. Family members hug and kiss each other and serve shirini (sweets) and other goodies prepared for this day, while the oldest members of the family give younger ones Eidi (New Year’s gift, usually money/cash), and in this way the twelve-day Norooz holiday begins. During these days, people are expected to visit one another (mostly limited to families, friends and neighbors) in the form of short house visits, starting with the elders as a sign of respect. These visits are then reciprocated preferably within the 12 day period.
The mehmooni (social visits) are kept relatively short (30 min- 1 hr), to squeeze everybody in on the list and it is not unusual to run into other relatives and friends paying a visit to the same house. Because of these house visits, people make sure to have sufficient supply of pastries, cookies, fresh fruits and ajeel (dried fruits and special nuts) to offer guests along with tea, of course.
Some Norooz celebrants, including my family, believed that whatever a person does on this day will set the tune for the rest of the year, so, being warmhearted and kind is encouraged. In the spirit of removing old habits and starting anew, family members or friends that were on the outs would also visit each other to renew friendship.
The main Norooz meal is Sabzi Polo ba Mahi, rice (polo) with green herbs (sabzi) served with fish (mahi). Some families also serve Ashe-Reshteh, a traditional noodle soup where the waves and knots made by the noodles represent the multitude of possibilities of one’s life. Untangling the noodles is said to bring good luck and fortune. Fun huh?
Kuku Sabzi is another dish prepared for Norooz, and given the number of times I’ve cooked it for my friends here in Missoula, I should be able to make it with my eyes closed and hands tied behind my back.
I have been on my own in Montana for a couple of years now, and as far as I know, I am the only Persian around here. However uncustomary the Norooz celebration may feel, I’ve decided to keep my native tradition alive, especially since, unlike my previous country Canada, the the weather is gorgeous and more conducive to that Spring feel.
Here is the picture of my humble Haftseen complete with (clock wise) mirror, candle, vinegar, sumac, garlic and coins (last 4 encircling the candle), Norooz cookies, apples, painted eggs, sprouted wheat, ajeel and a fishbowl in the center and mini daffodils to the far left of the candle. I used a commentary on Buddhism as my ‘holy book’, managed to hunt down some sumac the day before, but no one around here knew what senjed was. So, next year, I have to pre-plan better and order it online for my Haftseen. Here is a picture of senjed, in case you are curious.
I also baked some Naan Nokhodchi (garbanzo flour cookie), which turned out decent, considering that I didn’t have much of a recipe to work with. For dinner, I made Sabzi Polo ba Mahi, which tasted similar to Maman’s (my mom’s) minus the saffron. Persian are very fond of their saffron, but purchasing the real deal, in the West would cost me an arm and a leg, so most of my dishes are saffron-less, but delicious nonetheless. Keep me in mind when you win the lottery. 🙂
My very first Persian celebration was fantastic and the clear sky, sunshine and chirping of spring birds made it even more special. Happy Spring and Norooz to all of you my dear doostan (friends).
Sale no mobarak va sad sal be in salha. Enshallah hamishe shad o khorram bashid.