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Festivals of the World: Nowruz

Updated on July 10, 2012

In the United States, the new year begins with January 1st in the middle of winter, following the Gregorian calendar. However, Iran’s New Year, called Nowruz, follows a different calendar, more specifically one with Zoroastrian roots. Nowruz marks the exact astronomical beginning of spring and Iranians take that one step further and call it the beginning of the year. That precise second that winter turns to spring is called “Saal Tahvil” and this day of celebration, the largest festival in Iran, dates back over 3,000 years. Nowruz is an Islamic festival and while most other major festivals of Islam relate to death, Nowruz is a festival to celebrate life. It is, after all, situated at the beginning of spring, the season of rebirth and renewal. This joyous celebration is huge in Iran for these reasons and is a huge part of Iranian culture. Today, Nowruz is celebrated by Iranians around the world and is a public holiday in many countries in addition to Iran, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before Nowruz actually begins, Iranians have many preparations. First of all, they clean their houses. This spring cleaning, along with feasts and celebrations, is to welcome their guardian angels who they believe come visit them on Earth on these days before the New Year. Also, the night before the last Wednesday of the Iranian year is the Suri Festival. On this night, bon fires are lit and Iranians can be seen, leaping over the flames. This rite is said to purify and free them of any illness or misfortune. While hurdling over the fires, Iranians sing songs such as:

Sorkhi-e to az man (I will give you my yellow color [sickness])

Zardi-e man az to (and you will give me your fiery red color [healthiness])

In the two weeks before Nowruz, fireworks paint the sky in thunderous displays and people dance in the streets, parading with music and happiness. However, at the exact moment of Saal Tahvil, there is no big countdown and no fireworks or parties. Instead of focusing their attention on one moment of the night such as in the United States, the people of Iran spread out their celebrations over a period of 13 days.

After the Saal Tahvil, people celebrate by hugging and kissing and exchanging gifts. Usually, children receive presents such as money, sweets, or Aajil, which is a treat of nuts, raisins, and other ingredients. The beginning of the New Year is spent visiting with friends and family who welcome their guests by sprinkling them with rose water. In Iran, their New Year’s celebrations are a much bigger prospect than in the US and one that lasts for weeks rather than just one day. Throughout the festival and especially the night before the New Year, these families feast on many traditional Noruz foods.

A typical breakfast can include sweets such as faloodeh, ravo, or fried vermicelli cooked in sugar, and dry fruits. Faloodeh is made from rice noodles and soaked in rose syrup or a sweet sherbet and is eaten cold. Ravo is similar to a thick porridge. For lunch, one can expect to eat pulav, rice with nuts and saffron, moong dal, and fish. Customary Nowruz dishes include Sabzi Polo Mahi, Kookoo Sabzi, Reshteh Polo, and Dolme Barg and all are associated with good luck for the New Year. Sabzi Polo Mahi is rice and fish with green herbs such as parsley, coriander, chives, dill, and fenugreek. Kookoo Sabzi is a light and fluffy omelet soufflé and is served for dinner. Reshteh Polo is eaten for the wish of success in life and is made from rice and noodles. Dolme Barg, for the wish of fulfillment of hopes and dreams, is a mixture of cooked vegetables and meat and rice wrapped in vine leaves. Also, for rice cakes are popular snacks during this time.

After breakfast, Iranians participate in Nowruz prayers. Usually, Iranians pray individuality, but they can also take part in a jashan ceremony which is led by a priest.

During Nowruz, there are also many rituals that Iranians perform. One is making a haft-seen, which contains seven specific items that correspond to each one of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. Each of these items begin with the letter “s”: Serke (vinegar), seeb (apple), sabze (green grass), samanoo (a wheat meal), senjed (a type of berry), sekke (coin), and seer (garlic). This table is decorated with colorful ribbons and preserved until the last day of Nowruz. Iranians also keep a few live goldfish in a bowl and position mirrors with lighted candles to symbolize fire.

On the thirteenth day of Nowruz and the last day of this festival, Sizdah Bedar is celebrated. During Sizdah Bedar, Iranians travel outdoors into parks or meadows for a festive picnic. For Iranians, being with nature is an important part of Nowruz. This is because they believe the thirteenth day to be a bad omen, and so they remain outdoors, free from any harm or misfortune. Also, they throw their Sabze away from their haft-seen as it is bad to keep it after Sizdah Bedar. On this thirteenth day, unwed girls can also find husbands by wandering into the fields and tying a knot between green grass shoots. This, they believe symbolizes a martial bond.

Where New Year’s in the United States is about parties, staying up to count the last seconds of the year, exploding fireworks, and a celebration focused on one night only, Nowruz in Iran is about gathering together with family and celebrating renewal in a much more calm environment. Both of these festivities, however, are made in hopes for prosperity and well wishes for the New Year.

Do you celebrate Nowruz?

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