Understanding Iran’s Nowruz
Nowruz is considered the most important national holiday in Iran. It marks the beginning of a new solar year and the arrival of spring. According to the Persian calendar, it begins exactly at the moment when the center of the Sun is in the same plane as the Earth’s equator and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun.
Although the holiday signifies the commencement of the vernal equinox, which starts on March 20 or 21, it doesn’t always start at the same time; the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is different every year. But that’s the beauty of Nowruz– it starts on a unique moment each time, and people excitedly and breathlessly wait for the announcement of what is known as transition point of the year. The timing is astronomically and mathematically calculated according to the Jalali solar calendar in a precise manner and officially inaugurates the New Year.
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 over thousands of years. Like Christmas, Nowruz is a pleasurable, elaborate and delicate festival which brings millions of people together, but it seems that there are certain elements in Nowruz which make it a distinctive tradition, and one of these important elements is its historical significance.
Some people say that it’s the 5774th time that Iranians across the world have celebrated the ancient Persian New Year festival. However, some history experts believe that Nowruz has been enshrined and observed for more than 15,000 years, even before the official establishment of the Persian Empire.
Cyrus the Great ascended the throne as the first king of the Persian Empire in 550 BC, but Nowruz was celebrated almost 2000 years before him in Greater Iran, when In-Su-Kush-Siranna was the ruler of the Kingdom of Aratta, which consisted of several provinces that currently constitute the modern countries like Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Pakistan, Iraq and parts of India and Turkey.
Nowruz is one of the more prominent traditions of the Persian culture and Iranian civilization, as 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 described in detail the origins and roots of Nowruz. He says that when the legendary, prehistoric Iranian king, Jamshid Jam, conquered the world and ascended to the throne, he declared that day as Nowruz and the beginning of the Iranian New Year, which fortuitously coincided with the first day of spring. On that day, Iranians from across the country would come to visit Persepolis (the ancient capital of the Persian Empire) to hold festivals, celebrate Nowruz, receive rewards and gifts from the king, enjoy eating festive meals, dried nuts, fruits and sweetmeat, singing happy songs and performing plays.
As Nowruz comes immediately after the winter ends, Iranians believe it is an important event as a feast of rebirth and rejuvenation that resuscitates new life into the frosty and frozen nature. Iran becomes very beautiful in the spring, especially during the 13 days of the Nowruz festivals. Fragrant flowers and attractive plants grow in large quantities in northern, central and the southern parts of Iran and the weather is predominantly mild and moderate in the majority of the cities all around the country.
The holiday is also important as it relates to family and ancestry in Iran. 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.” Therefore, 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 Iranians are strongly committed to is paying a visit to the elderly and meeting the other members of the family. In such meetings, the Iranian families entertain each other with delicious Iranian cuisine, spring fruits, dried nuts, candies, confections, deserts, rice-cakes, pastries and cookies. The senior members of the family the father, mother, elder sisters and brothers, uncles, aunts and grandparents give the younger members 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.
However, it is possible that the 13-day celebration was not always so, and has changed over the course of history. In an elaborate and well-researched article about Nowruz published on 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.”
Given the historical background of the private nature of the festival after the fifth of Farvadin, the 13th day has an especially important meaning to Iranian families. According to the ancient belief of Iranians, 13 is an auspicious and ominous number. On the 13th day of Farvardin, Iranian families gather in parks, gardens, farms and other green places, eat cuisines which contain certain local herbs, talk to each other in a friendly manner and throw their sprouted wheat grasses into rivers and waterways and believe that by leaving sprouted wheat grass in the rivers and canals, they throw away the bad luck and misfortune associated with the number 13 and the 13th day of the year. They can guarantee a new year and prevent hardships and calamities from occurring in their lives. Iranian families believe that the grass which is pitched in the rivers will take bad luck to an undisclosed destination.
Setting the “Haft-Seen” table is also one of the customs of Nowruz which 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 like “s.” The Haft-Seen table is named so because there are seven items on this table whose names start with the Persian letter: Senjed, Sumaq, Seeb, Seer, Samanu, Sabzeh, and Sonbol..
Each of the seven items signifies a certain idea, concept and meaning. “Senjed,” the sweet, dry fruit of the lotus tree denotes love and affection. “Sumaq” also known in English as “sumac,” are the crushed spices of berries that symbolize sunrise and the warmth of life. “Seeb,” a red apple, stands for health and beauty. “Seer,” or garlic, indicates good health and wellbeing. “Samanu,” a sweet paste made of wheat and sugar represents fertility and the sweetness of life. “Sabzeh,” or sprouted wheat grass is the renewal of life and the rebirth of nature. “Sonbol” or the purple hyacinth flower stands for prosperity and goodwill in the New Year.
However, the majority of Iranian families put more than seven items on their “Haft-Seen” table. The additional things are “Sekkeh,” coins which herald wealth and affluence, “Serkeh” also known as vinegar, which 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. Another item placed on the beautiful Haft-Seen table is a mirror. A mirror is a symbol of purity, reflection and honesty and the Iranians never forget putting 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 and protect their life in the coming year.
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. The holiday is a remnant of the very first years when the human civilization took shape–it removes the religious, cultural, lingual and national boundaries and connects the hearts of millions of people who want to take part in a unique and unparalleled ceremony marking not only the beginning of the New Year, but the end of a harsh winter and the 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 nations around the world.
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