WEDNESDAY and THURSDAY, MARCH 20 and 21: Spring has sprung as the planet passes through the vernal equinox. For millions of families around the world, this also marks the New Year usually called Nowruz or Naw-Ruz. Spellings in English vary widely but the roots are the same—deep in the cultures of the region now known as Iran. More than 3,000 years ago in that part of the world, Zoroaster pointed his followers toward patterns of celestial movement.
Today, versions of this New Year’s tradition are celebrated by Zoroastrians, Sufis, Ismailis, Alawites, Baha’is—and others. In 2010, the United Nations recognized that these religious and cultural communities are minorities around the world, often persecuted or in the midst of other conflicts. So, the UN declared an International Day of Nowruz and called on all who observe the holiday to celebrate with a focus on peace and goodwill.
A GLOBAL ‘NEW DAY’: Though rooted in Iran and Persia, Norouz is now experienced throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and with festivals in North America, Europe and Asia. The Iran Heritage Foundation will host its annual Norouz Gala in London this year, while the House of Iran Nowruz Celebration will take place in San Diego; Chicago will host its own annual Nowruz Parade, and the Iranian Association of Boston will host a New Year’s bash. (Get an overview at Asia Society. Kids can get an age-appropriate breakdown of global Noruz at Asia Society Kids.)
HOW OLD IS NOWRUZ? Some texts point to Nowruz celebrations nearly 15,000 years ago, although the exact origins are impossible to confirm. (Wikipedia has details.) Nonetheless, the Shahnameh (a poem regarded as the national epic of Iranian culture) dates Nowruz back to the reign of Jamshid—a mythical Persian king who saved mankind from a winter so harsh that it was destined to kill every living creature. Legend has it that the king constructed himself a throne of gems and that, when the harsh winter had passed, he had demons raise him from the earth to the heavens. The world’s creatures gazed at King Jamshid in wonder, calling this the “New Day,” or Nowruz.
IRANIAN NOWRUZ: For families observing these ancient customs, preparations have been underway for weeks! Just days ago, the children of Iran wrapped up pre-Nowruz traditions by parading through the streets in burial shrouds (while begging for candy from neighbors), in imitation of the ancient Iranian ritual of mourning the end of life at the end of the year.
THE HAFTSIN TABLE: Once again, English spellings vary widely in describing the symbolic table setting for the Persian New Year: Haftsin and Haft-Seen are among the renderings you’ll find. Wikipedia has settled on Haft-Seen as its standardized spelling. These gorgeous table settings often feature eggs, fruit and cakes—and the seven “S’s.” The Haftsin table, which varies slightly by region, contains seven objects that begin with the Persian sound of “s”: senjed (dried fruit); sir (garlic); serkeh (vinegar); sonbol (hyacinth flower); sekkeh (coins); sazbeh (green wheat sprouts); and samanau (sweet pudding).
Following 12 days of visits to family and friends, the 13th day commences as a day to picnic in the country. Nicknamed “the lie of the thirteenth,” it’s popular to tell white lies on the 13th day of Norouz, similar to the Western April Fool’s Day.
WORLDWIDE BAHA’I CELEBRATION OF NAW-RUZ
Baha’is approach this holiday in a different way. Regular readers of this column will recall that Baha’is have been engaged in a 19-Day Fast. On the evening of March 20, Baha’is gather with family and friends for an elaborate Now-Ruz dinner. Learn more from Wikipedia or the Baha’i Library Online. (And Naw-Ruz is currently fixed on March 21 for Baha’is outside of the Middle East.)
Prayers are recited as the faithful enter the “spiritual springtime.” Baha’is who fasted adhered to the words of Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha: “Fasting is the cause of awakening man.” Feeling refreshed, Baha’is follow the Now-Ruz dinner by suspending work and school to celebrate a day of Baha—that is, splendor, glory and the Day of God. While commemorating prophets and figures of the world’s major religions, Baha’is spend the additional 18 days of their first month of the year feasting, dancing and playing music. (Access Naw-Ruz prayers here.)
Founded by an astronomer, the Zoroastrian religion began thousands of years ago and many credit it as the starting point of modern Nowruz celebrations. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) pointed out the movement of the sun toward Aries—which thereby signaled the spring equinox and new season of regeneration—and followers across Western and Central Asia participated in Nowruz for centuries. (Learn more from the Heritage Institute.)
The ancients offered their god, Ahura Mazda, seven trays of symbolic objects that represented such virtues as truth and justice; the tradition continues today in elements of the Haft-Seen table. Of notable difference between the Zoroastrian Iranian Haft-Seen table and the Muslim/Iranian table is the presence of wine: “shin” was changed to “sin” with the Islamic disapproval of sharab, or wine. Zoroastrians today continue to place wine on the Nowruz table, along with a copy of the sacred book, a picture of Zarathustra, coins, fruits, sprouts, a mirror and a bowl of goldfish. The original, pre-Persian table also included milk, nectar and compote.
PAGAN / WICCAN OSTARA
As the northern hemisphere welcomes the onset of spring, modern Pagans and Wiccans celebrate Ostara. Themes of renewal and new beginnings are lifted up as adherents commemorate the sacred marriage of the Sun God and the young Maiden Goddess. (Wicca.com has more.) Stories tell that the Maiden Goddess conceives and that springtime symbols, such as the rabbit and egg, symbolize her fertility. Most Pagans and Wiccans partake in leafy greens, sprouts and dairy foods during this festival, participating in activities that emphasize the beauty and bounty of nature.
NOWRUZ ROUNDUP: NEWS AND RESOURCES
Hungry for a taste of Persian cuisine? Try a recipe for Persian New Year’s Soup, courtesy of epicurious. The recipe’s author, esteemed food writer Louisa Shafia, will also be releasing The New Persian Kitchen next month: check out this interview for her firsthand take on Persian culture, the role of food in holidays like Norouz and the challenges of keeping tradition alive in the Diaspora.
In Los Angeles, the Persian community will kick off the New Year with a cause: the Midnight Mission homeless shelter. After handing out clothes and toys, the Persian community will underwrite Midnight Mission’s meal service for 13 days—the number of days the holiday lasts in Iran.
Across the world in Shiraz, Iran, volunteers have cooked 220 kg of samanoo for distribution to the needy. The sweet paste, used for the Haftsin table, is made of germinated wheat and traditionally cooked by women in an all-night gathering.