The countdown has started for the arrival of Nowruz. For starters, Nowruz, meaning "new day" in Persian, is a festival that marks the beginning of solar New Year, and is celebrated by around 300 million people in the Middle East, West Asia, Central Asia, Caucasus and parts of Eastern Europe, even though the Iranian Diaspora enshrine and observe it wherever they happen to be, whether in New York and San Francisco or Paris and Amsterdam. Nowruz is celebrated by the people of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and other countries, but it historically hailed from the Greater Iran and continues to be its foremost national holiday.
Nowruz is an ancient Zoroastrian fiesta that has survived the passage of time through centuries and outlasted the malicious efforts of those who wished to obliterate it as they considered it to be a depraved ritual, and is now seen as an integral part of the cultural heritage of Iranians and all the nations that observe it, and an indissoluble hallmark of Persian civilization. It is characterized by the renewal of family reunions, paying tribute to the elderly, exchanging gifts, attending to the poor and the orphans, reconciliation with those with whom we've been at odds for some time and taking pleasure in the beauties of nature, which stand out quite noticeably at this particular point of time. And indubitably, Nowruz is a high season for artistic endeavors, when singers perform live nationwide or release their new albums, painters exhibit their latest artwork and families prefer to go to movies and theaters.
Recognized by the United Nations as an international holiday, Nowruz was inscribed in 2009 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. March 21 was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Day of Nowruz, even though the 2016 Nowruz falls on March 20. The ancient Iranians smartly capitalized on the transformations of nature and chose the first day of Spring as the beginning of their New Year and the first day of Jalali calendar, a modified version of which known as the Solar Hijri calendar is now in use in Iran and Afghanistan.
Nowruz is a festival of flowers, colorful confections and sweetmeat, dried nuts, local dishes and gracious messages of greeting and good wishes. In Iran, a country composed of several different ethnic and racial groups that form a patchwork of diverse cultures, Nowruz is a unifying element that brings the Iranian Azeris, Arabs, Baluchis, Kurds, Lurs, Turkmens and Armenians together for two weeks of jovial and uplifting celebration.
The Nowruz holiday begins on March 20/21 and continues for two weeks, concluding on the day of Sizdah Bedar, literally meaning "13th in outdoors." It's a celebration when the people flock to the forests, parks and plains on the 13th day of the New Year to spend some time together al fresco, enjoy the exquisiteness of springtime and consign the bad omen associated with the number 13 to oblivion and get prepared for the recommencement of business and work with improved vigor and strength. The government offices and banks are closed for the first five days of Nowruz, but the students and private workers usually enjoy the full two-week holiday. Newspapers also give themselves the first five days off and the printing usually starts from the sixth day of Farvardin, the first month of the solar calendar.
What makes Nowruz exceptional is its intertwinement with nature and the reflection of Spring traits in the customs and rites associated with it. On the first day of Nowruz, Iranians set up the Haft Seen table on which they put seven (Haft) items whose names in Persian begin with the letter "Seen" sounding "s." There's a specific story and idea linked to each item, and it's believed that Iranians historically used these articles to beautify their Haft Seen table spreads. "Nature" is the common theme that bonds all of these items intellectually. For example, there's red apple (Seeb) which symbolizes health and wellbeing. Or they put a sweet pudding made of wheat germ (Samanu) on the Haft Seen, which stands for affluence and beauty. There is vinegar (Serkeh) that represents long life and patience. And of course the inseparable part of Haft Seen is a hyacinth flower (Sonbol) whose heavenly fragrance heralds love and affection in the coming year and further underlines the well-built relationship between Nowruz and nature. There are objects on the Haft Seen table with names that don't start with the letter "Seen," but have a lofty position on the tabletop, including goldfish, mirror, candles, colored eggs and the Holy Quran or a book of poetry. Families conventionally compete with each other in preparing the most beautiful, attractive Haft Seen tables.
A Haft Seen my wife and I set up three years ago
Iranians also place "Sabzeh" on Haft Seen, which is wheat, barley, mung bean or lentil sprouts they start growing in different containers a couple of weeks prior to the arrival of Nowruz, and by the time the Haft Seen is set up, it's almost fully grown up. On the day of Sidzah Bedar, which I talked about earlier, Iranians tie knots with the Sabzeh, make wishes, whisper some prayers and throw sprouts into rivers and canals, hoping that their wishes come true as the water would take the sprouts to undisclosed locations in larger bodies of water or seas.
In the lead-up to Nowruz, Iranians make extensive preparations and ensure that they're completely geared up for the arrival of the New Year. They believe they should refresh their houses, clothes and whatever seems to be manifesting the oldness of the year that's nearing its end. One omnipresent tradition during the final days of the year is Khaneh-Tekani (house shaking) when the housewives, with the help of spouses, begin a drastic process of cleaning literally everything unclean in the home, including rinsing the carpets and curtains, dusting the sitting room and bedrooms, mopping the floor and brushing the furniture.
My wife is already in the final stages of Khaneh-Tekani. We've bought our hyacinth flower and will be heading to bazaar in a couple of days to buy the goldfish and the sweetmeat, and of course the indispensable Iranian pistachio, which is a pivotal requisite for the Nowruz gatherings.
Those whose knowledge of Iran is confined to its nuclear program, human rights issues and embarrassing former president - said to be recently superseded by Donald J. Trump in terms of intolerability, might find something interesting in Nowruz that can open their eyes to new dimensions of life and culture in my misunderstood country.
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Some people say that it’s the 5,774th time that Iranians across the world are celebrating the ancient Persian New Year festival, Nowruz. However, some history experts believe that Nowruz has been enshrined and observed for more than 15,000 years, well before the official establishment of the Persian Empire. Like Christmas, Nowruz is an elaborate festival that brings millions of people together, but there are certain elements in Nowruz that make it a distinctive tradition, and one of these important elements is its historicity.
Cyrus the Great, the first king of the Persian Empire, came to throne in 550 BC, but for almost 2000 years before him, when In-Su-Kush-Siranna was the ruler of the Kingdom of Aratta, Nowruz had been celebrated in Greater Iran, which consisted of several provinces that currently constitute modern countries like Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Pakistan, Iraq, and parts of India and Turkey.
Nowruz is considered the most important national holiday in Iran as it marks the beginning of a new solar year and the arrival of spring. According to the Persian calendar, Nowruz begins on the vernal equinox, which starts on March 20 or 21. The beauty and wonderfulness of Nowruz is that it starts on a unique moment each time and people excitedly and breathlessly wait for the announcement of what is known as the moment of the transition of the year. This moment is astronomically calculated according to the Jalali solar calendarand officially inaugurates the New Year.
Unquestionably, Nowruz is one of the prominent hallmarks of the Persian culture and Iranian civilization. It represents the glory and magnificence of ancient Iran and manifests a sense of national pride and dignity for Iranians around the world. In his long epic poem, Shahnameh, the 10th century Iranian poet and philosopher Ferdowsi talks in detail about the origins and roots of Nowruz. He says that when the legendary, prehistoric Iranian king Jamshid Jam conquered the world and ascended the throne, he declared that day as Nowruz and the beginning of Iranian New Year. On that day, Iranians from across the country would come to visit Persepolis (the ancient capital of the Persian Empire) to hold festivals, receive rewards and gifts from the king, enjoy eating festive meals of dried nuts, fruits, and sweetmeat, sing happy songs, and perform plays.
Nowruz is important in that it comes as winter ends, and that is why Iranians believe Nowruz is a feast of rebirth and rejuvenation that injects fresh and warm blood into the veins of the frosty and frozen nature. Iran, which is famous for its climatic diversity and unique nature, is very beautiful in the spring, and especially during the 13 days of Nowruz festivals. Fragrant flowers and attractive plants grow in large quantities in northern, central, and southern parts of Iran, and the weather is predominantly mild and moderate in the majority of the cities all around the country.
Nowruz is celebrated from the Farvardin 1 to 13 (Farvardin is the first month of the solar calendar whose name is taken from the Zoroastrian word “Faravashis” meaning “the spirits of the dead.” Iranians believe that the spirits of their deceased beloved ones will return to the material world in the last 10 days of the year.) One of the common traditions of Nowruz that the Iranians are strongly committed to is paying visit to the elderly and meeting the other members of the family. In such meetings, Iranian families entertain each other with delicious Iranian cuisines, spring fruits, dried nuts, candies, confections, deserts, rice-cakes, pastries, and cookies.
Setting the “Haft-Seen” table is also one of the customs of Nowruz that is seen as a quintessential part of the New Year celebrations. Haft means “seven” in Persian, and “seen” stands for the sign of the 15th letter of Persian alphabet which sounds “s”. The Haft-Seen table is named so because there are seven items on this table whose name start with the Persian letter “seen”. Each of these seven items signifies a certain meaning. These items include “Senjed”, or silver berry, the sweet, dry fruit of the lotus tree, which denotes love and affection; “Sumaq”, or sumac, the crushed spices of berries, which symbolizes sunrise and the warmth of life; “Seeb”, or red apple, which stands for health and beauty; “Seer”, or garlic, which indicates good health and wellbeing; “Samanu”, a sweet paste made of wheat and sugar that represents fertility and the sweetness of life; “Sabzeh”, or sprouted wheat grass, which is a sign of renewal of life; and “Sonbol”, or the purple hyacinth flower, which represents prosperity and goodwill in the New Year. However, the majority of Iranian families put more than 7 items on their “Haft-Seen” table settings. The additional things are “Sekkeh”, coins that herald wealth and affluence; “Serkeh”, vinegar that symbolizes age, patience, and the toleration of hardships; and “Sangak”, a plain whole wheat sour dough flatbread that characterizes blessing and good luck. Iranians also put colored eggs and a bowl of goldfish on their traditional Haft-Seen table and consider these two elements as signs of fertility, welfare, and happiness.
One of the other elements placed on the beautiful Haft-Seen table is a mirror, a symbol of purity, reflection, and honesty. Iranians never forget to put a beautifully adorned and decorated mirror on their traditional table setting. They also put a copy of the Holy Quran on their Haft-Seen table, which they believe will guard their life in the coming year.
In an elaborate and well-researched article about Nowruz published on the Iran Review website, the cultural researcher Firouzeh Mirrazavi writes, “The festival, according to some documents, was observed until the fifth of Farvardin, and then the special celebrations followed until the end of the month. Possibly, in the first five days, the festivities were of a public and national nature, while during the rest of the month it assumed a private and royal character.”
Since Nowruz was historically celebrated in Iran’s ceremonial capital Persepolis [Takht-e-Jamshid] in the southern city of Shiraz, every year thousands of Iranians travel to Shiraz to take part in the national celebrations of Nowruz. Even the foreign tourists who travel to Iran to take part in the celebrations prefer to visit Shiraz or Isfahan during the 13 days of Nowruz.
But why is Nowruz extended for 13 days? According to the ancient belief of the Iranians, 13 is an inauspicious number. On the 13th day of Farvardin, Iranian families gather in parks, gardens, farms, and other green places to eat cuisines containing certain local herbs and have friendly conversations. They also throw sprouted wheat grasses into rivers believing that by leaving the “Sabzeh” in the waterways, they throw away the misfortune associated with the number 13 and the 13th day of the year, and this way, they guarantee their New Year and prevent hardships and calamities from coming into their life. They think that the Sabzeh that is pitched into the rivers will take the bad luck with itself to an unknown destination.
In Nowruz, the adults in the family pay the younger members certain amounts of cash as a gift for the New Year. This reward is called “Eidi” and is not usually spent during the whole year but saved and kept as a token of blessing and wellbeing.
With all of its beauties and splendor, Nowruz is now considered a global festival as it was officially recognized and registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in February 2010. The same year, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz, describing it as a spring festival of Persian origin which has been celebrated for thousands of years.
Nowruz is a relic of past days, a remnant from the dawn of human civilization. It removes religious, cultural, lingual, and national boundaries and connects the hearts of millions of people who want to take part in a unique ceremony marking not only the beginning of New Year, but the end of the distressed winter and arrival of the delightful spring. It’s not simply a source of honor for Iranians who observe and celebrate it, but an opportunity for the congregation and solidarity of all the peace-loving and peace-making nations around the world.