People celebrate the new year all over the world. We clean our houses, put on new clothes, eat special foods, and greet friends and family with warm wishes for a good new year. Some people begin the new year on January 1. Others connect the new year not just to the solar cycle but also to the phases of the moon. And some look forward to the spring equinox, around March 20, when the sun is over the equator, and day and night are exactly the same length of time. The Persian people call that day Nowruz, the New Day of the New Year.
History of Nowruz
The Persian New Year celebration, Nowruz, started 3,000 years ago in ancient Persia (modern day Iran) and is still celebrated all over the world. Nowruz means “new day” in Farsi, the official language of Iran. The important themes in these celebrations are reverence for nature, respect for family and community, doing good deeds, and forgiveness.
Nowruz themes and rituals derive from the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions, possibly dating back as far as 1,500 BCE. Many Zoroastrian beliefs are based on the tension between good and evil, creation and destruction. Zoroastrians believe in one god, Ahura Mazda, the creator and good force, whose prophet was named Zoroaster. The destructive force working against all that is good is called Angra Mainyu. The duality of good and evil exists in many Nowruz traditions. It is believed that even the great ancient Persian palace of Persepolis was built to house royal celebrations such as Nowruz.
Zoroastrianism was the religion of ancient Iran until the 600s CE when an Arab army defeated the Sasanian empire and brought Islam to Iran. Iranians were able to preserve Nowruz as a secular tradition by blending it with Islamic traditions. Today Nowruz celebrations often feature Uncle Nowruz, who, similar to Santa Claus, wears a white beard and brings toys and gifts to children. These adaptations have helped Nowruz survive through the ages without losing its original meanings.
The Story Behind the New Year: King Jamshid and the First Nowruz
According to the Shahnameh, the first Nowruz was celebrated by the mythological King Jamshid. Ferdowsi writes that Jamshid brought harmony and peace to his people through his divine right to rule (farr). In ancient times in Iran only kings or certain heroes possessed farr, which was thought to protect the people of Iran from evil, and keep the country safe and people happy.1
The story states that Jamshid founded human civilization. He created agriculture, textiles, armor and weapons, medicine, perfume, and all that was needed to form an organized civilization. He established social classes, where everyone had a role in society. He tamed demons and even assigned them work to help build up the community.
When Jamshid had built up his community, it was time to celebrate. This day was the first Nowruz. He created a jeweled throne, which was lifted up to heaven by demons. From his throne, he sat smiling in the sky, and all creatures surrounded him with admiration. It was the first day of spring, and has remained as the New Year celebration in Iran and many countries with Farsi-speaking people.2
Celebrating Nowruz: Rituals and Festivals
Preparing for the New Year
Nowruz is the most important holiday celebration involving rituals and festivities to say good-bye to the old year and welcome in the new year. In the week prior to the new year, purifying rituals take place that symbolize a fresh start, and the triumph of good over evil. Families conduct a spring cleaning as a symbol of forgiving others. Some participate in a fire-jumping ritual, which was a traditional Zoroastrian rite of purification, singing, “Fire, you give me your redness and energy, and I give you my paleness and sickness.”
Children also participate in a tradition similar to trick-or-treating. They dress in a white and visit their neighbors. They bang pots and pans with spoons to get rid of the past year’s bad luck, and ask for treats that symbolize good luck. The customary treats are an assortment of seven dried nuts and fruits: pistachios, roasted chick peas, almonds, hazelnuts, figs, apricots, and raisins.
The Beginning of the New Year
Families gather around, waiting for the exact time of the New Year (Saal Tahvil) and the official first day of spring. As soon as the new year is announced, families hug, take pictures, and eat sweets or special dried nuts. Nowruz festivities begin right after Saal Tahvil and last for thirteen days with special rituals and festivities.
The Haft Seen
What holidays do you celebrate that incorporate food that has a special meaning? At Nowruz, people celebrate with a special table, the Haft Seen Table. On it are seven things that start with the letter “s” in Farsi. These items are in honor of the gifts given to the people by King Jamshid. The themes of Nowruz are also celebrated through these symbolic foods. Usually they include:
- sabze (sab zuh), wheat, barley or lentil sprouts grown in a shallow plate: rebirth
- samanu (sah mah noo), pudding made from wheat germ: wealth
- senjed (sen jed), dried fruit of thelotus/oleaster tree: love
- sīr (seer), garlic: health
- sīb (seeb), apples: earth, beauty and health
- somaq (so moch), sumac berries: sunrise
- serkeh (sir keh), vinegar: patience.
Other common items are coins (sekke), the Quran (Muslim holy book), a book of Persian poetry such as the Shahnameh, flowers, mirrors and candlelight, painted eggs, goldfish, and special sweets. Zoroastrians today practice slightly different traditions from Muslims. For instance Zoroastrians grow seven herbs representing themes of renewal.
Thirteen Days of Celebration
The first day of new year immediate family members stay inside the house and spend time together. The first evening, it is customary for each family to have a dish of fish and herbed rice, called Sabzi Polo Mahi. Historically fish had been a luxury only available in spring, but the tradition of serving fish for this special occasion continues.
From the second day until the thirteenth day, families participate in Deed-O-Bazdeed, which is when they reunite with their families. After this first meeting, those visited return the gesture. This is called Bazdeed, which means seeing again or visiting again. On day two each family goes to visit in this order: grandparents, uncles, aunts, distant relatives, neighbors, and friends. The younger people receive Eidi, or gifts of money, from their elders.
After the New Year
Sizdah Bedar, or “thirteen outdoors,” takes place on the thirteenth day after the New Year. Families celebrate the thirteenth day of spring by having a picnic and staying outside of the house. Why do people stay outside on this day? Thirteen is also considered an unlucky number. Staying outside on this unlucky day is thought to bring luck to the home for the rest of the year. After Sizdah Bedar, students return to school and the new year’s holiday comes to an end.
1 Ferdowsi, Hakim Abolqasem. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Trans. Davis, Dick. New York: Penguin, 2007, xxxvi.
2 Ferdowsi, Hakim Abolqasem. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Trans. Davis, Dick. New York: Penguin, 2007, 7.
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