By : Iraj Bashiri
The oldest of Iranian traditions, Nowruz (also referred to as eyd-i sar-i sal and eyd-i sal-i now) recalls the cosmological and mythological times of Iran. Its founder is a deputy of Ahura Mazda on earth, a position that imparts to him and the celebration a spiritual dimension and a particular sense of secular authority. The celebration is organized according to the dynamics of love between the Creator and his creation, the material world. The annual return of the spirits of the departed to their homes is celebrated by their offspring according to primordial rites of which only a faint trace remains among the Persians and the Parsees of today. But that in no way diminishes the importance of the bond which is refreshed at every Nowruz.
The word “Nowruz” is a compound of two Persian words, “now” which has the same etymology as the English word “new” and means new, and the word “ruz” which means both “day” and “time.” Literally meaning the “new day,” nowruz is usually translated as “new year.” The Persian Nowruz begins on the first day of spring (usually the 21st of March). The 21st of March, therefore, is equal to the 1st day of Farvardin of the Islamic solar calendar1.
In the mind of Iranians, the word nowruz invokes colorful images which are sumptuous, elegant, and opulent as well as delightfully simple, refreshing, and cordial. Although colored with vestiges of Iran’s Mazdian and Zoroastrian past, the Nowruz celebration is neither religious nor national in nature, nor is it an ethnic celebration. Jewish, Zoroastrian, Armenian and Turkish Iranians and Central Asians celebrate the Nowruz with the same enthusiasm and sense of belonging. Perhaps it is this very universal nature of the message of Nowruz that speaks to its wealth of rites and customs as well as to its being identified as the unique fount of continuity of the Iranian culture.
Preparation for the Nowruz begins early in March with sprouting of sabzeh (lentil, wheat, or barley seeds) and a thorough khane tekani (house cleaning). The former harks back to the agrarian background of the Iranian tribes that celebrated the main transitions in the climate that dictated the dynamics of their lives. The latter, which entails washing carpets, painting the house, and cleaning the yard and the attic, stems from the Zoroastrians’ preoccupation with cleanliness as a measure for keeping Evil away from the kingdom of Good.
Symbolically, khane tekani signals to the spirits of the ancestors that their kin are ready and willing to entertain them. In other words, they are invited to descend on their previous homes to help them nourish the growth of the sabzeh, the main source of their sustenance which has been depleted during the long and cold days of winter.
The sprouting of seeds and house cleaning are followed by kharid-i Nowruzi (Nowruz shopping). Nowruz shopping, a family affair performed mostly to engage the children in the celebration, must include all the members. Everyone must be measured and outfitted with new clothes, shoes, hats, and the like. In addition, as we shall see below, the sofreh (Nowruz display cloth) requires certain items–sweetmeats, confectioneries, candles, fruits, and nuts–which are also bought at this time. In addition to what is bought, women of the household bake various types of sweet breads and sew special clothes for the little ones. At the end a trip must be made to the bank for acquiring shiny, new coins and crisp, fresh banknotes to give out as eydi (gift) and for the sofreh.
The month during which Nowruz celebrations are held is an extraordinary time in the life of the community. In ancient times this aspect of Nowruz was so prominent that the mayors of towns were literally displaced by the most victorious person in carrying out the commands of Ahura Mazda and his six holy immortals. This victorious (piruz) khwaja or lord was given the rule of the realm for the period. As a part of his duties, Khwaja Piruz saw to it that all the people of the realm were provided with the amenities and joy that were due them. In time, especially after the fall of Iran to the Arabs who would not relinquish rule to defeated foes, the office of Khwaja Piruz deteriorated into its Arabized form, Haji Firuz. Only the duty of stimulating laughter and providing a good time has remained of what must have been a complex set of social affairs. Today, Haji Firuz is no more than a spectacle that occurs during the last few weeks before Nowruz. He and his troupe of musicians appear on the streets and alleyways all over the country.
Known as the traditional herald of the Nowruz, Haji Firuz is a black-faced character clad in bright red clothes and a felt hat playing a tambourine and singing, “haji firuze, sali ye ruze.” (It is Haji Firuz time. It happens one day a year!). People of all ages gather around him and his troupe of musicians and listen to them play the drum, saz or kamancheh and dance. Those who are impressed with the troupe’s performance shower it with coins and paper money.
Often, well-to-do Iranians invite Haji Firuz to their home to perform for their wife and daughters who would otherwise never see Haji Firuz in action on the street. Here the group plays popular folk music, performs a variety of comic routines, and tells jokes. At the end of the performance the members are invited to a nice Nowruz meal and are handsomely compensated for their contribution with an eydi (Nowruz gift).
The actual Nowruz ceremonies begin on the eve of the last Wednesday of the out-going year. Early in the evening of that day, referred to as charshanbe souri or “Red Wednesday,” several rather large bonfires are made; every member of the family jumps over the fire and says, “sorkhi-e to az man, zardi-e man az to,” which literally means “Give me your redness and take away my wintry sallow complexion). The jumping over the fire is followed by a get together in which nuts and fruits are served. This party is mostly for the benefit of the children of the family who are entertained, long into the night, with stories that they will remember with joy throughout their lives.
While the party goes on the fire dies out. The ashes are gathered and, as the symbol of the bad luck imposed by winter, are taken out of the house and buried in the fields. When the person in charge of burying the ashes returns and knocks on the door, those who are in the house ask, “Who is it?”
Fire is of particular significance in ancient Iranian cultures. The charshanbe souri fire might have been related to the signals sent to the spirits of the departed to guide them to their previous abodes to enjoy the prayers that their descendants perform for their benefit. The fact that traditionally the fires were lit on the roofs of houses speaks directly to the necessity of the fire to be distinct and visible.
As part of the charshanbe souri festivities, and very much like Halloween, children–sometimes accompanied by adults–visit their neighbor’s houses in disguise. The disguise is usually something like a veil (chador) covering the entire body. Each member of the party carries an empty metal bowl and a metal spoon. At the neighbor’s door, they create a chorus with banging the spoons on the bowl and on the door. The neighbor opens the door and places a treat in each visitor’s bowl. The party then proceeds to the next house. As a rule, the members of the party must remain silent and anonymous throughout the process. Often boys and girls who otherwise would have no occasion to see each other, meet across the threshold.
A more culturally interesting aspect of the charshanbe souri celebration is the falgush performed by girls in their teens and young unmarried women. For this, the teenagers or the unmarried women huddle in the corners of dark alleys and listen to the conversations of passersby. The contents of the first sentence of a conversation exchanged is regarded as an omen (fal) or portent for the future. For instance, if a young girl hopes to get married sometime during the next year and hears the following, “There is no way that any sane person would say no to such an offer…” she would be elated. Conversely, if she hears some thing like, “Do you think we didn’t try? It’s like talking to a brick wall,…” she would be utterly disappointed.
Tup-i Morvari or pearl cannon was a large cannon kept at the Arg (citadel) of Tehran. Studded with pearls, the cannon was rolled out on charshanbe souri night. Tehrani women, wishing to get married in the coming year, climbed on the cannon and walked under it hoping that their wish would come true.
Those who have encountered problems for which there has been no solution often stop the first passerby crossing their path and ask him or her to undo a knot they have tied in a shirt tale. The willingness or unwillingness of the strange passerby to undo the knot is an omen for the resolution of the problem in the coming year.
Still as a part of the charshanbe souri festivities the family places several low-denomination coins (pul-i siyah), a piece of charcoal, seeds of the wild rue, and a piece of rock salt in a new earthen water jar. Then, the jar is taken up to the roof and from the edge of the roof, the contents of the jar are tossed into the street. While filling the jar the person says, “My pains and misfortunes into the jar!” and when tossing the contents, says, “My pains and misfortunes onto the street!” Serving as a preventative measure, the items in the jar have the power to foil any attempt by Evil at harming the family during the coming year. Often, water is also added to the contents to aid the absorption of evil and to make it sink deeper into the ground.
|Lighted candles, which represent the goodness and warmth that enters life with the coming of spring and the dissipation of evil that has had the world in its cold grip, are placed on the sofreh. In a large setting, an open fire would replace the candles. The number of the candles must be the same as the number of the offspring in the household. Often an egg accompanies each candle. It should be mentioned that the candles on displays must be allowed to burn themselves out. It is bad luck to blow out a candle.|
A copy of al-Qur’an (holy book of the Muslims) or the Avesta (holy book of the Zoroastrians) or the Bible or the Torah (depending on the faith to which the family belongs) is placed in a prominent place on the sofreh. The holy scripture refreshes the bond between the faithful and the source of good emanating from the light.
|Haftsin or seven edible things the names of which in Persian begin with the letter “sin” or “s” are placed in a tray or otherwise placed next to each other on the sofreh. Sib (apple), somaq (sumac), sir (garlic), samanu (a paste made with wheat sprouts), senjed (jujube fruit), sohan (a candy made with honey and nuts), siyahdane (sesame seeds), serke (vinegar), and sangak (bread baked on a bed of rocks) are the usual edible items from among which seven are chosen. Since the edible items on the haft-sin are not to be eaten until after the change of seasons, often non-edibles such as sekke (coins), sonbol (hyacinth), spand (the wild rue), sepestan (sebestens), samovar (samovar), or sabzeh (wheat or lentil sprouts) are substituted. The seven “sin”s symbolically recall Ahura Mazda and the six Amesha Spentas who help him regulate the affairs of man according to the “din” or order prescribed by Ahura Mazda’s Ahuric Order. It should be added that today the seven “sin“s are interpreted rather differently, as the following example illustrates:|
|Samanu||sweetness, fertility, having many children|
|Sir||medicine for recovering from evil|
|Sib||health, natural beauty, fragrance|
|Somaq||color of the sun at sunrise|
|Serkeh||age and patience; wards off bitterness in life|
|Sohan||sweetness in life|
|Sabzeh||purity, opulence, and good fortune|
Needless to say, these interpretations are not sanctioned by any particular authority or based on any overall analysis of the theological and/or cosmological values that ancient Iranians might have had for them. What else can be an apt interpretation of sekke (coin) in this context but affluence, wealth, and prosperity? Ironically, this is one of the “s’s” that comes into fruition right after the tahvil-i sal. The coins which equal the number of family members, are distributed among the members by the family patriarch (grandfather or father).
Additionally, it should be mentioned that haft-sin could have been haft-shin—shir (milk), shekar (sugar), shahd (nectar), sharbat (compote), shane (comb), sharab (wine), and sham’ (candle)–in pre-Islamic times. “Shin” has been changed to “sin” to accommodate Islam’s disapproval of sharab or wine. Why that one item could not have been replaced with a different item beginning with “shin” is not known.
Other traditions relate haft-sin or haft-shin to seven trays (sini) filled with seven delicious food items or seven different growing seeds, or seven varieties of nuts offered to the king. Others consider the seven “s’s” to have been Life, Health, Happiness, Prosperity, Joy, and Beauty, all forming the seventh “s” which, according to Zoroastrian traditions, represents Truth.
Still others contend that while the first tray to Ahura Mazda was empty (Truth is a combination of things with no substance of its own), the other six trays were filled with flowers, sugar, milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, cream, eggs, water, mirrors, candelabra, burning coal, silver, and gold. These items, according to this belief, represent Truth, Good thought, Dominion, Piety, Prosperity, Immortality, and Obedience.
|A mirror placed on the sofreh face up with a plain hard-boiled egg placed on it in the middle.|
|A bowl of clear water with an orange and a leaf of a rose bush floating in it.|
|Live goldfish in a bowl of clear water|
|The barley, lentil, or wheat sprouts that had been growing since early March decorated with a red ribbon around the outside and an orange seated in the center.|
In addition to these there are representatives of the other kingdoms sustaining life on earth, i.e., products from the animal kingdom in the form of cheese and yogurt, the plant kingdom in the form of flour, vegetables, rice, and of the water kingdom in the form of the goldfish are also placed on the sofreh. Pomegranates and pussy willows also are sometimes seen. The latter is especially important as it blossoms at this very time of the year.
Sa’at-i tahvil means the hour during which the old year ends and the new year begins. In an Iranian house, during the Nowruz celebration, sa’at- tahvil is a most crucial moment in the life of the family, especially with regard to forgiving past failings, putting away petty frictions that would otherwise fester into conflicts, and looking forward to more constructive relations. And, of course, this is the moment when the egg rolls on the mirror and the orange flips over in the bowl of water. The moment is announced by the resounding boom of cannons fired in the square, by a brief speech delivered by the leader of the nation, and by the debut of a popular song contributed by a popular favorite artist.
Just before the change of the year, all members of the family, in their new clothes and holding a new coin in their hand for good luck, gather around the haft-sin display and, quietly and patiently, watch the solitary white egg on the mirror. Each one imagines a huge bullfish in the ocean of time carrying the world on one of its horns. Any moment now, the bullfish will toss the world over to the other horn, resulting in a tremor that will dislodge the egg and send it rolling to the side of the mirror.
As soon as the egg rolls, the members of the family, rejoicing, kiss each other, exchange Nowruz greetings, eid-i shoma mobarak! (May you have an auspicious new year!), and proceed, especially in the case of children, to make the rounds of the elders of the family first and of the neighborhood. Adults, too, have a set schedule of visits and of receiving visitors.
As a rule, the patriarch of the house stays home until all those younger, and lower in rank, than him come and pay their respects, then he would return those visits. Visits are short. Sweets and tea are the most often served items. The rounds of visitations might last as long as thirteen days.
Several beliefs related to sa’at-i tahvil are interesting. The first thing to eat, for instance, should be an egg; because it is believed that eggs ensure good fortune. In fact, in some traditions, the patriarch of the family must eat all the eggs that have accompanied the candles placed for each offspring on the sofreh! The first person who enters the house after sa’at-i tahvil might decide the good or bad fortune that would visit the house in the next year. Often a member of the family known to be blessed with good fortune is sent out to become the first visitor. Things brought into the house, especially their color, also have the potential of influencing the course of the future of the family. The color white is regarded auspicious. Black is believed to be associated with grief and strife. Even the place where the individual is at sa’at-i tahvil is significant in that he or she might be stuck to that or a similar location for the entire duration of the coming year. In this context, therefore, one tends not to be anywhere near schools, offices, or the bazaar.
The Nowruz ceremonies end on the thirteenth day of the first month of the new year. On that day almost all the people leave the towns and villages and spend a day in the countryside enjoying the beautiful weather that accompanies the change of seasons. During this outing the sabzeh that had been displayed and with it, all the sins, worries, and concerns of the past are thrown into running water. The new year then begins with a fresh slate on the 14th day of the month.
With regard to the sabzeh, it should be noted that some rural folk might plant the sabzeh rather than throw it into running water. It should also be noted that one should not touch other peoples’ sabzeh on that day. Before the sabzeh is thrown, girls at the age of being married and unmarried women often tie the blades of the sabzeh saying, “sal-i digar, khane-i showhar, bachcheh dar baghal!” (Let next year find me in my husband’s house with a baby in my arms!”
Nowruz visits may include exchange of gifts. Exchange of gifts, however, should not be confused with eydi (New-year gift), which can take a number of forms depending on circumstances. Within the family, the head of the household may give either coins or new bank notes of certain value to the members of his family or to visitors as eydi. The coins may be gold, silver or of some special make. On Nowruz day, the family may stage a small “money-hunting” game. This is very much like finding Easter eggs in the grass. The money, however, is usually placed under the edges of carpets in various rooms in the house.
Nowruz visitors during the early days of the celebration are children and young adults; they visit the older members as a sign of respect. Similarly, employees visit their bosses and directors at this time. The reason for the lack of such a visit is usually interpreted as the existence of some deep-rooted hostility or hatred on the part of a young family member or an employee. The visitors do not bring any gifts but may receive a gift. During the latter part of the twelve-day Nowruz celebration, the older members of the family visit the younger members. This visit may include gifts, usually larger gifts like carpets and cars, as eydi. Bosses and directors often delay a promotion to be given as an eydi to a deserving employee on the occasion of the Nowruz.
In modern times, Nowruz visits have expanded into parties. Some of these parties are communal in nature. Members of the Iranian society organize them. They charge a fee for food and drinks. Other similar parties welcome the guests as “members” of the family. In the latter situation, it is appropriate to bring a gift. The gifts given usually include but are not restricted to confectioneries, especially gaz made in Isfahan or sowhanmade in the holy city of Qom. Although, even in Iran, these sweets are not made at home, they are available from Iranian specialty shops in most major cities. Other types of sweets, pistachio nuts, dried nuts and fruits, books, flowers, and liquor (outside Iran) are also appropriate gifts for the occasion.
1Among others, Iranians have borrowed two cultural points from the Arabs: their alphabet and their starting point for history (mabda’i tarikh). For the former, they modified the Arabic alphabet by adding four letters while retaining a number of sounds that are not used in Persian. The alphabet thus created is referred to as the Arabic-based Persian alphabet. For the latter, they have accepted the hijrah of the Prophet as the starting point for their history abandoning centuries of real history as well as a wealth of mythic time (cf., the Christian calendar that begins with the birth of Christ). Thus, both the solar and the lunar calendars used in Iran are Islamic, albeit of different modes. During the rule of the Pahlavis, an attempt was made to replace the year 1355 with 2535 but due to mismanagement and lack of stability of the regime, the effort failed. This calendar would have been an Iranian calendar since its starting point coincided with the coronation of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire.