Nowruz: Persian New Year

The Persians have always celebrated the new year at Spring Equinox with the wonderful holiday of Nowruz (pronounced NO-ROOZ). And in some way, you might say, Nowruz was the start of my career as a calendar priestess.

It was the first new holiday I adopted and made my own, back when I was a college student. I found a brief (two-sentence description) of it in an almanac and began celebrating it with my college roommates. We would put a candle in the middle of the living room and jump over it on Red Wednesday, to get rid of all the things we didn’t want to bring forward into the new year. Once my daughter was born, it became a family tradition.

The Persians call the Spring Equinox Nowruz or Nourooz which means New Day. The Nourooz greeting is “Har Roozat Nourooz Va Nouroozat Pirouz” which means “May your every day be the new day and each new day be a successful one.”

According to Anneli Rufus, the festival is preceded, like Easter and Passover, with a thorough house-cleaning. The evening before, Iranians serve an omelet heavy with spinach, dill and parsley and also munch on bowls of ajeel-e moshgel goshah, “unraveller of difficulties,” a mixture of pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried figs, peaches and raisins. Note that most of these are seeds as befits a spring feast.

The evening meal on the day of Nowruz, is a grand feast, on the scale of Passover and Easter, and both the decoration of the table and the sorts of food served have symbolic significance. I’ve been celebrating Nowruz for years, using a set of directions from that long ago almanac page. I set my table with a leaf floating in a bowl of water, a mirror, yogurt, colored eggs, sweets, a holy book, rose water and a candle for every child in the house.

Rufus’ directions for decorating the table are similar but slightly different and equally intriguing: Gnarled branches which represent the twisting path of life. An orange floating in a bowl of water, to represent the world floating in space-time. A goldfish swimming in a bowl (also featured in feasts honoring St Joseph on March 19 and Maimuna, the day following the eight days of Passover). Plus tinted eggs, milk, rose water, candies, fruit, incense, narcissi, pastries, candles, coins and a mirror for every member of the household.

Whatever the decorations, the menu always consists of seven items that begin with the letter S. Rufus provides a list of the haft-sin, the Zoroastrian seven S’s: apples (sib), hyacinth (sonbol), garlic (seer), sumac (somagh), jujube fruit (senjed), sprouted seeds (sabzeh) and a wheat germ dish called samanon. Another 7 items that begin with SH are often served: wine (sharab), sugar (shakar), milk (shir), syrup (shireh), honey (shahd), candy (shirini) and rice-pudding (shir-berenj).

However, if these foods are not readily available in your area, you might consider doing what I have done for years, since I didn’t know the Farsi names of the dishes until recently. We eat seven foods that begin with S in English. Our usual menu includes smoked salmon, spinach salad with sunflower seeds and sprouts, spaghetti sauce, served over spaghetti squash, and strawberries and shortbread for dessert, and a glass of syrah (or sparkling soda) to sip.

Like most New Year’s meals, the food eaten at the Nowruz dinner has symbolic importance. The theme is the green of spring and most dishes feature either vegetables or the color green. One exception is a dish of mahi safid dudi, smoked white fish. Another dish usually found on the Nawruz table is kuku, a souffle-like vegetable and herb pie, in which the eggs represent fertility and happiness. Bread is dipped into a special yogurt and spinach dip: the white is for purity, the green for spring. Recipes for these two dishes can be found here. Other traditional dishes include sabzi polow, basmati rice with seven vegetables, and panir va sabzi, a salad of fresh raw vegetables, basil, tarragon, scallions, red radishes, and mint with feta cheese. For recipes, go here.

In the twelve days that follow Nowruz, Persians visit friends and families, share meals and give gifts. The holiday season ends with a picnic on the Thirteenth Outside (this year on April 3rd).

I realized after reading this recent New York Times article that calling this holiday Persian New Year has political implications.  I call it that because that’s how I was first introduced to it over 25 years ago and also because the holiday was first recorded in historical time when it was celebrated by Darius the Great at his new palace in Persepolis in 587 B.C.E. The holiday is now celebrated in Central Asia, Caucasus, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Crimea and some groups in the Balkans. Under some Muslim regimes, celebrating Nowruz was discouraged as it was seen as a frivolous, pagan festival.

It seems a living example of a process that happens over and over again, where a conquering people or religion tries to eradicate the ceremonies of the native people, like the Christians with the pagan holidays of Europe or the Puritans with May Day. However, like those efforts which were unsuccessful, the celebration of Nawruz has not been squashed. In fact, the UN put it on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994

Wikipedia article

Photo by Cathy Moore of her Nowruz table.

first published March 12, 2012

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