Similarly, the Iranian New Year is known as “Nowruz”; literally translating to “New Day”. It signifies the first day of spring, the season of creation and the resurrection of nature. Consequently, Nowruz has an evident relationship to the Bundahishn’s text of primal Creation.
Nowruz is not an isolated concept. The spirit of Nowruz becomes palpable among the Iranian people in the days leading up to New Year and continues for several days thereafter. Therefore, to fully appreciate the celebrations of this season one needs to have a comprehensive understanding, not only in regard to the ceremonies of Nowruz, but the related feasts and traditions.
Nowruz the Persian New Year
“Hourmazd (Ahura Mazda) created finite time from that which was infinite. This finite length of time shall last twelve thousands years, from the creation of life on earth to the time that evil will be vanquished.”
These lines are extracted from the Bundahishn; a collection of texts related to Zoroastrian cosmogony and cosmology. The name consists of two parts; “Bun” meaning “primal” and “Dahishn” meaning “creation". Bundahishn, therefore, translates to “Primal Creation”. Similarly, the Iranian New Year is known as “Nowruz”; literally translating to “New Day”. It signifies the first day of spring, the season of creation and the resurrection of nature. Consequently, Nowruz has an evident relationship to the Bundahishn’s text of primal Creation.Nowruz is not an isolated concept.
The spirit of Nowruz becomes palpable among the Iranian people in the days leading up to New Year and continues for several days thereafter. Therefore, to fully appreciate the celebrations of this season one needs to have a comprehensive understanding, not only in regard to the ceremonies of Nowruz, but the related feasts and traditions.It is important to note that the modern iteration of ceremonies surrounding the Persian New Year have not been extant from the tradition’s inception. Nowruz, as a dynamic festival, has evolved significantly over the centuries; adopting diverse customs and beliefs as a consequence to the Persian people’s interaction with populations of differing cultural and religious identities.
Activities Prior to New Year’s Day:
- Spring Cleaning: A significant principle of Persian New Year custom is the idea of a fresh and revitalised start to everything; even, if not especially, the household. Indeed, in the days leading up to New Year families will be cleaning, washing and repairing every corner of their home; sometimes even going through a total refurbishment. During this time it is not uncommon to find the Persian people of a vibrant disposition as they go about their duties of spring cleaning. Scenes of washed carpets hung over balconies and the vigorous scrubbing of windows are a typical feature of daily life in the pre-Nowruz period.
- Growing “Sabzeh”: There is a legend from the days of ancient Persia that told of a tradition in which twelve clay columns were erected twenty five days prior to the day of Nowruz. Upon each column would be planted a different type of grain, such as wheat, barley, rice, pea, beans, lentils, etc. On the sixth day of Nowruz these grains would be harvested and used in a celebratory feast.Nowadays, in contrast to the columns of old, Persians will plant various types of grain, either on a plate or in a vase, approximately ten days to two weeks before Nowruz. On New Year’s Day the budding sprouts will be placed on what is known as a “Haft Sin” table formed of seven symbolic items that each start with the letter “S”. Among other symbolic items, there the sprouts will be kept until the thirteenth day of the new year. Upon this thirteenth day, called “Sizdah Bedar”, families will leave the shoots in flowing water or among nature within parks and other public spaces.
- “Chaharshanbe Suri”: On the night of the last Thursday of the year Persians will build bonfires in the streets and open spaces to share in the coming New Year with their friends and neighbours. Every man, woman and child, even the elderly, will join in this festive celebration to revel, sing and leap over the flames.Associated with this date is a quotation well known among Iranian’s: “Let your ruddiness be mine and my yellow colours be yours”. It is meant to communicate a desire for the flames to take away that person’s ills and pasty features and instead give them health, warmth and vitality.
After the bonfire Persian families will fill clay vases with water. Into these vases each family member will place something of significance. The vases will then be dropped from the roof as everyone shouts “Dard-o Bala” (pain and disaster); it is meant to cast out all disease and maledictions from the house and its inhabitants for the following year.Charshanbe Suri includes a final custom similar to trick-or-treating known as “qāshoq-zani”; literally translated as "spoon-banging".Chadors (an Islamic cover normally used by women exclusively) will be worn that night by men and women alike to go door to door hitting spoons against plates; they will knock continuously until someone answers the door and offers them small gifts such as snacks, coins, eggs or socks.
- The Last Thursday of the Year: Thursday afternoon is the time that Persians usually go to honour their ancestors and visit their graves. This is a weekly tradition, however, it has even greater significance on the last Thursday of the year. Families will sometimes set up a small Haft Sin, bring a growing sprout or flowers in a vase to decorate the gravesite. In addition to this sweats, dates, bread or Halva (a sweet confectionery) will usually be brought to serve to other visitors or even passing strangers. Gathering around family graves at this time of year is an attempt to include the deceased relatives in the New Year’s celebrations.
- “Hajji Firuz” and “Mir-e Nowruzi”: The current official calendar in Iran is known as the Solar Hijri, or Shamsi Hijri calendar. The first six months have 31 days, the next five have 30 days, and the last month has 29 days, or 30 in a leap year. New Year's Day always falls on the March equinox.However, in one version of the ancient Iranian calendar (the new Zoroastrian Calendar), all twelve months of the year had 30 days and the five remaining days in the Solar Calendar were known as “Panje”, meaning “five”, or “Khamseh Mostaragheh”, meaning the “stolen five” in Arabic.
These five days were concurrent with “Gahanbars”, one of the six Zoroastrians seasonal festivals; it is a celebration to recognise and appreciate the wonders of creation.One of the celebrations related to these last five days of the year is Mir-e Nowruzi. Akin to the Feast of Fools, a comical figure, known as Mir-e Nowruzi, was chosen by the people to rule the municipality for these last five days of the year (Panje) in place of the cities actual ruler. Al-Biruni, an Iranian scholar and polymath of the 10th/11th century, mentioned a beardless man with bizarre customs who wore make up and tried to humour people in return for a tip.Hafez, the great poet of the 14th century, also mentioned this figure in his poetry and said:
“The Rule of Mir-e Nowruzi Would Not Last More Than Five Days.”
One can find evidence of the Mir-e Nowruzi tradition in sources dating back as recently as eighty years ago. However, Iranians nowadays do not commonly practice this upset of the established order in the manner previously described.However, it could be argued that the personification of Mir-e Nowruzi has survived in “Hajji Firuz”. This character only appears in the last days of the year. His face is covered in soot, and he is clad in bright red clothing and a felt hat. He dances through the streets while singing and playing a tambourine trying to make people laugh in the hope of receiving a small tip. Those dressed as Hajji Firuz, in a manner similar to that described by Hafez, will appear quite suddenly in the final days of the year only to disappear with equal abruptness until the end of the next. During their appearance they can be head in the streets singing: “It’s Hajji Firuz, the one you can see only once a year”·
- Providing New Clothes and Festive Foods: Persians all over the world, inspired by the resurrection of nature after the cold winter months, try to refresh their own persons through purchasing a new item of clothing.Buying and wearing new clothes is one of the commonly fashionable customs of New Year, and every family, depending on their financial situation, will try to uphold this tradition. Indeed, even those who are still mourning a beloved one recently deceased try to escape their black garb and wear something new. Hand in hand with treating oneself to a new wardrobe, however, is to offer new clothes to the less privileged among society; the poor who cannot afford to follow such a tradition without aid from the charitable.Furthermore, a custom that is particularly popular the night before New Year’s Day is to provide everyone with special dishes and traditional meals. The lunch of Nowruz, almost everywhere in Iran, is “Sabzi Polo” (cooked rice with herbs) and fish.
Turning of the Year’s Traditions:The modern Solar Hijri Calendar of Iran is based on the Jalali calendar; a calendar developed by a group of astronomers, including the Persian scientist Omar Khayyam, during Seljuk dynasty in the 11th century. The Solar Hijri calendar year commences at the first moment of spring in the Northern Hemisphere; the count starts with the Islamic prophet Mohammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.The instant of New Year’s is precisely determined down to the very second. Iranian families try to gather together at this exact moment and sit around the “Haft Sin” table. Depending on their religion they will read a section of their holy book as well as verses of Persian poetry; most likely Hafez. Upon the moment of New Year’s hugs, kisses and good wishes for the following twelve months will be exchanged. The tradition of being together and spending time with relatives will continue for the next two weeks; to be exact until the thirteenth day, Sizdah Bedar or Nature’s day, of that new year.
- Haft Sin (New Year’s Table): Many terms are attributed to this tradition, including Haft sin (seven S’s), Haft Shin (seven SH’s) or Haft Chin (seven CH’s). Yet, all these terms are referring to the same highly organised table display which every Iranian household lays out during the new year’s first two weeks.The symbolic holiness of the number seven, the importance of family gatherings, the festivities and the joy that is shared have all made this tradition one of the highlights of Nowruz.Nowadays, Iranians select seven symbolic items to decorate the New Year’s table which not only start with the letter “S”, but are also all of them living plants. This might include:
“Sabzeh”: a type of grain like wheat or barley grown in a dish as the symbol of greenery, nature and exhilaration.“Samanu”: sweet pudding made of wheat germ which stands for power and bravery.
“Senjed”: a dried Russian olive which symbolises wisdom and regeneration.
“Sir”: garlic, which is believed to be the symbol of contentment.
“Sib”: apple, which is a defining symbol of health.
“Somaq”: sumac, a symbol for patience and tolerance.
“Serkeh”: vinegar, an irreplaceable item, which symbolises surrender and satisfaction.
Additionally, there are some items in Haft Sin which do not necessarily have to start with "Seen" but might be used as decorative pieces within a Haft Sin nonetheless; these could include a mirror, candles, coloured eggs, bread, a holy book, Hafez’s Diwan, or a bowl of water containing an orange.
Traditions of the Immediate Post-Nowruz
- Visiting Friends and Family, the Giving and Receiving of Gifts (Eidi): One of the most precious aspects of New Year’s is seizing the opportunity to catch up with family and friends. It is a common custom that the elderly enjoy some priority over the young, yet what this actually means is that young people should visit their elders first before the older generation make the journey to their children or grandchildren.However, these visits should be mutually returned, and it is usually the elders who give gifts to the younger members of the family. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the huge volume of traffic on Iran’s roads in the build up to New Year’s is directly reflective of this tradition being kept alive. Even if a relative may reside in another city on the other side of the country one should make the effort to pay them a visit.
- “Sizdah Bedar”: Sizdah Bedar (literally meaning to stay outdoors on the 13 th day of the month) is celebrated on the thirteenth day after Nowruz. It is celebrated by leaving one’s home and stepping out into nature; oftentimes picnicking. It is a marker of the final day of Nowruz celebrations and should be held in the burgeoning spring at a different location from years previous. Picnics are prepared in advance for lunch the following day. It is also upon this day that families commit the plants grown for the Haft Sin to a public space of nature.
All in all, the varied rituals of Iranian Nowruz, from family greetings and visits to the ceremonies of the season, takes approximately a month to complete. It is the 13th day after Nowruz that one’s normal routine begins again. These traditions have a strong symbolic meaning for Iranian’s in ushering in the New Year and rejuvenating the world. In a way the first twelve days of Nowruz are each a symbol of the coming twelve months of the year, and in turn the twelve month of the year are meant to represent the twelve thousands years of our world’s lifespan in Zoroastrian belief. In this view each year should be considered as new word entire!
Article: Gilgamesh Heritage & Tourism Magazine No.4 Spring 2018 The Annual Renaissance
By: Arash Nooraghayee (Tourist Guide)
Translated by: Mahdiyeh Mohammadi
Mehrdad, Bahar. (2011), “ Dadgi, Faranbagh” . Toos PublicationsRuholamini, Mahmoud. (2008), “Aeen-ha va Jashnha-ye kohan dar Iran-e Emruz” (Ancient rituals and celebrations in contemporary Iran). Agah PublicationsDehbashi, Ali. (2009), “Nowruz” .Afkar Publications