The lives of ancient people depended on being able to accurately predict the cycles of the seasons. Everything about ancient Iranians and their Zoroastrian roots goes back to their intense focus and respect for nature and its cyclical patterns. Through centuries of observations and recordings, they were able to come up with a system, that would help them predict when to plant, water, harvest and store their vital food supplies. That ancient system of counting the cycles of the sun has been in place for over 3,000 years, and it all began with Nowruz.
Nowruz, the Persian national festival is the most well-known and important event in central Asia. The celebration coincides with March 21st when spring comes to ancient Persia and makes the area so lively and green. The atmosphere changes fully, people are more cheerful and smiling on the streets. Shops are decorated with Nowruz stuff and nature cooperates with the event. As elegant Persian poet Hafiz says: “Springtime is here again/With the charm of roses./Look at their fresh cheeks/And the bitter plant of sadness/Will be uprooted from your heart”.
Lexicology and Roots
The word Nowruz consists of two words in Persian, ‘now’ means new and ‘ruz’ means day. ‘New Day’ fits a good title for the first day of the calendar, but the word doesn’t define just one day. It includes a period of 13 days celebrating the advent of spring. So, the first day of spring is the beginning of both the Persian new year and the official calendar in Iran and Afghanistan. It’s also the official holiday in many other countries like Tajikistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Iraq, Syria, Georgia, The Republic of Azerbaijan, Albania, China, Turkey, Turkmenistan, India and Uzbekistan. Nowruz has roots in Zoroastrian ceremonies and rituals.
Like any old ceremony, Nowruz rituals have changed slightly after 3000 years. Ancient Iranians were Zoroastrian and in this religion, fire is considered holy. They believed it’s pure and can’t get any abomination. Also, Fire illuminates any darkness and accounts for the truth and clarity. They called their God, Ahura Mazda and believed that fire is his most significant gift to humans. Nowruz was a way to praise Ahura Mazda for all given blessings. Zoroastrians also supposed the ghosts of their ancestors would come to their houses in Nowruz. So they kept cleaning houses and decorate them by spring flowers.
In the first day of Nowruz, they used to set fire at dawn and make things ready for the festival. While the aroma of fruit, burnt rue seed and frankincense would spread in the air, whispering Avesta (Zoroastrians’ holy book) and praising Ahura Mazda could be heard. Zoroastrians thanked him for all blessings. The celebration continued with dancing and chanting around the fire. In some cities, where Zoroastrians reside, they may celebrate Nowruz exactly like the past, but it has changed a little after so many years.
Modern Iranians start the ritual as the first sign of spring by cleaning their houses. They may even begin it a whole month before Nowruz. The concept of cleaning has a simile to remove any grudges from the heart. If two persons are in a sulk, they usually try to make it up. People go clothes shopping as well. They only wear new clothes while visiting each other in Nowruz. Everything should be clean and new before the new year comes. Another reason, people go shopping during this time is to buy stuff for Nowruz table. At this time of the year, if you walk on Iran’s streets you’ll face lots of shops or vendors selling green plants, aromatic flowers or playful goldfish.
Last Wednesday of the Year
There’s another old custom which is still held before Nowruz. Many believe it refers back to the Zoroastrians. ‘Farvehar’ was considered as a spiritual power which flies up to skies after death. So, they had faith by setting a fire over hills five days before Nowruz, Ancestors’ Farvehar come down on the earth again. Nowadays, on the last Wednesday of the year, People gather in an outdoor area and set fire with brushwood. They chant traditional poems while jumping over the fire. There’s another tradition similar to trick-or-treating. People wear disguises and hit spoons against plates behind the doors, so people give them nuts, cookies or chocolate. This originates in ghosts arrival as they cover their face, come back to their relatives and ask them for gifts.
One critical fact about Persian new year is Nowruz table. It should be set a few hours before the start of the new year, otherwise, it’s considered as a bad omen. The table is called ‘haft sin’ as Haft means Seven in Persian, which is a holy number and the sign of eternality. The letter ‘Sin’ in Persian is similar to the letter ‘s’ in English, so haft sin means to put seven objects that start with Sin on the table. We’re going to name all that is needed to have a ‘Haft Sin’ and also mention the philosophy behind each item.
Let’s start with Sabzeh, grass which is formed in a plate usually with a ribbon around it. Sabzeh can be grown at home about 20 days beforehand. Different kinds of seeds can be used. They mostly plant lentils or wheat these days. This is the most beautiful and lively item which brings green color and freshness to the table. It can have roots in Ancient Persia, king’s workers used to build 12 adobe columns inside the castle before Nowruz, then plant seeds over them. If they would flourish, the king would be delighted and it would be considered as a lucky blessing for all the year. This is one of the reasons, people put it on the table. In fact, it’s the sign of lushness and luckiness.
Next is ‘Sib’ or apple in Persian. Apple is a sign of kindness and health. It’s the tradition that an elder person puts an apple on the table because they’re usually concerned about other family members’ health.
Another item starting with ‘Sin’ is Seer, simply garlic in English. They put garlic bulbs for disinfection and removing evil eyes. Zoroastrians believed garlic’s smell would push the devils away.
‘Serkeh’ or vinegar is another Sin, which has a similar function to garlic, to clear and freshen air or remove a curse. Also a sign for being strong and having old age.
‘Samaq’ or ‘Sumac’ is one of the species of flowering plants, which produces red berries. Due to its nice sour taste, you can add it to food as a spice. Sumac is the sign of patience and the flavor of life on the table.
Sanjed or oleaster, also called Russian olive is an edible light brown fruit. They put Sanjed on the table as the symbol of wisdom as it can enhance the memory. Another reason is that they say the leaves and blossoms of this plant have a very pleasant smell.
The last item is Samanu, a sweet paste made from germinated wheat, which is cooked especially for Nowruz. Although it’s very delicious and nutritious but takes lots of time to be prepared. The amazing point about Samanu is that it’s sweet without adding any sugar and the only ingredients are wheat, flour, and water. ‘Sekeh’ is an extra option, it is coin in Persian and is the symbol of wealth, they place it on the table to earn lots of money in the Iranian new year.
People use other symbolic objects, apart from these ‘haft sin’ items. Mostly decorations, which can cover the concept of the Nowruz table as well. For example, painted eggs, which is usually done by kids and makes them excited about working with different colors. It’s a sign of human races with different skin colors, which all should cooperate with each other to have a better world. The goldfish shows vitality and refreshments. Candles in the Haft Sin table are the signs of happiness and light in life and they’re normally the same number as family members. The mirror shows the infinite world of God and also clarity. A Bowl of water with tangerine floating on top shows the movement of the earth.
At the end of the year Nowruz comes, family members gather around the haft sin table while wearing their new clothes. They start praying and making wishes for their new year. They will usually have Sabzi Polo which is fish and rice cooked with vegetable as Nowruz food.
Ceremonies and Rituals
The following days, visiting relatives starts and the first day allocates to grandparents’ house. Afterward, it’s time to visit other relatives in their houses and it begins from older ones to the youngsters. The usual things people eat on these ceremonies are fresh spring fruits, cookies and nuts, including almonds, pistachios, hazels and watermelon seeds. They usually greet each other by saying Nowruz Mobarak, which means Happy Nowruz! This process continues for 12 days.
The 13th day is considered to be a bad omen. The 13th day is called Sizdah Bedar. In Persian, Sizdah means 13 and Bedar refers to pushing all negative energies away. On this day, relatives will usually have picnics as they try to have fun outside in parks or woodland. That’s why it’s also considered as Nature’s day in Iran. One of the traditions of this day is to tie a knot of grass, the same Sabzah which was used for Haft Sin. Next, they usually throw it into a river, lake or any stream. In general, their intention is to be able to solve problems and fulfill dreams in new year. Some singles consider it as a way to get married in future and some believe it’s a promise with nature to be always youthful and fresh.
In 2010, the United Nations submitted the International Nowruz Day. Nowruz shares similar ideas with cultural diversity and friendship among various countries. As its perception is very close to UNESCO’s policies, it’s registered on the UNESCO World Heritage as well. In conclusion, Nowruz is the Persian new year celebration. It’s the clue that spring is coming to Persia. Everywhere looks green and fresh, trees gain new leaves and blossoms shine like sparkling pearls. In Persian new year, everything should become new and pure from people’s clothes to their houses and reconciliations. The general concept of Nowruz is to have a better life and to be a more peaceful person in the following year.
Qeysarie Gate, Isfahan, Isfahan Province, Iran
Pasargad, Shiraz, Fars Province, Iran
Yazd, Yazd Province, Iran
Tehran, Tehran Province, Iran
Tabriz, East Azerbaijan Province, Iran
Lut desert, Kerman
Tehran Province, Tehran, Tochal Climbing Entry, Iran
Karkas Mountains, Natanz, Isfahan Province, Iran