All About Nowruz

All About Nowruz


Iranians have celebrated the first day of spring, March 20/21, Nowruz (lit., “New Day,”) for more than 3,000 years. The word now (pron. ‘tow,’ ‘mow,’ ‘low’) derives from an Indo-European root and is cognate with Sanskrit nava, Avestan nav, English new, German neu, Spanish nuevo, French nouveau, Romanian nou, Lithuanian naujas, and similar terms in sister languages. Celebrated as the Iranian New Year since the time of Zoroaster when it was dedicated to fire, the last of the seven creations after sky, water, earth, plants, animals, and humankind, this seasonal festival marks the end of winter and the rebirth of nature. Ending on the thirteenth day of the first month of the Iranian calendar, Farvardin, Nowruz festivities comprise a series of joyful, serene and symbolic rituals and gestures that underscore the universal significance of creation and of the special ties of family and friendship.

Nowruz is observed as the New Year not only by Iranians of every faith, but also by other cultures around the world that were influenced by Persian civilization in the course of history, from Zanzibar where Iranian traders settled in medieval times, to parts of China and Central Asia, and India with its large population of Parsees, parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, several former Soviet Republics, the Balkans, the Black Sea Basin, Turkey and Iraq.

Nowruz festivities revolve around the theme of taking leave of the tired and the old and welcoming the energetic new. Beginning with Khaneh-takani (spring cleaning) and Chaharshanbe-suri (jumping over fire), they lead to Nowruz (the vernal equinox,) and finally to Sizdeh-bedar (the 13th be gone!) on the 13th of Farvardin (April 1st in 2010). The first two components are preformed in the weeks leading up to Nowruz. Families begin preparations by spring-cleaning their homes, buying new clothes, and sprouting seeds. On the eve of the last Wednesday (Chaharshanbe, the “4th Shanbe”) before Nowruz, they jump over fire to symbolically acquire its life force, and they eat dried fruits and nuts to absorb energy.

On the day of Nowruz, families dress in their new clothes and gather around a Haft-seen table spread with seven (haft) items beginning with the letter “s” (seen) that represent life and fertility, light and longevity, purity and prosperity. In the Sasanian period when Iran was still a largely farming society, the displays were predominantly dairy products and grains. Over time, the items have acquired an agricultural tone and may include sonbol (hyacinth,) seeb (apples,) seer (garlic,) serkeh (vinegar,) samanou (wheat germ pudding,) senjed (oleaster fruit,) sabzeh (sprouted seeds,) sumac, and the odd one in the set, sekkeh (coins). A mirror, candles, goldfish, painted eggs, and pastries are also commonly displayed.  The family sits around the Haft-seen table and awaits the arrival of spring. At the moment of transition into the New Year, sal-e tahvil, family members embrace each other and may exchange gifts, especially on behalf of children. Over the next twelve days, friends, near and distant relatives, and even colleagues visit each other, take tea and sweets, and generally go about remembering and reinforcing their social bonds.

The Nowruz festivities come to a close on the 13th day of spring, Sizdeh-bedar (lit., 13 Be gone!). People spend the day picnicking outdoors; the merriment includes the ceremony of casting off the sabzeh—the dish of sprouts from the Haft-seen table—in a stream to symbolically wash away all the exhausted growth from the previous year.

Observing the arrival of spring as the supreme occasion for renewal, the universality of Nowruz highlights our common humanity as well as our dependence on the Earth.  It urges us to reflect upon, and echo nature as it blossoms into life, to refresh our mind and body, and to come together as a community to strengthen and advance the human condition.

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