The Persian New Year And The Beginning Of Spring

The Persian New Year is an ancient celebration that takes place on the vernal equinox, the exact astronomical beginning of spring. The first day of the New Year is called Nowruz, and is pronounced as "no-rooz", which literally means 'new day' in Persian.
Illustration by Linda Sawaya in Aramco World

The origin of Nowruz can be traced back thousands of years through a continually evolving series of  traditions. Nowruz was founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in Persia (ancient Iran) approximately 3,500 years ago. Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions,but Nowruz has been widely celebrated without religious connotations fro thousands of years. It is celebrated by people all over the world and is a national holiday in 13 countries. Iranians consider Nowruz to be their biggest celebration of the year. Its also significant to the Zoroastrian community as their spiritual New Year, although their traditions differ somewhat from the secular celebrations of Nowruz. Traditionally, the character Hajji Firuz, heralds the approach of Nowruz. He wears bright red clothes and his face is covered in sooth (blackened). He dances through the streets while singing and playing a tambourine, and is the companion of Amu Nowruz (uncle Nowruz).

The character Hajji Firuz
Chaharshanbe Suri is celebrated on the eve of the last Wednesday before Nowruz. The ceremony begins on the evening of the last Tuesday and continues until the early morning hours of Wednesday. People traditionally jump over bonfires, shouting "Zardie man az to, sorkhie to as man," which means "May my pallor be yours and your red glow be mine." The flames symbolically take away the unpleasant things from the last year. Many people today only light the fire and say the words without jumping over fire.The bonfires symbolize light, warmth and energy. While jumping over these fires people sing "Zardi ye man az to, sorkhi ye to az man," translated "Take away all of my ailment and give me your health and energy."
Chaharshanbe Suri celebration in New York City, March 2016.

Spring cleaning, buying new clothes, or buying new furniture are traditions associated with Nowruz. On the eve of the New Year,families wait together for Tahvil, the exact moment that the new year begins. At that moment they kiss each other and wish each other a healthy and happy new year: "No-Rooz Mobarak" (Happy New Year) or "Eyd-ed Shoma Mobarak" (Happy New Year to you) or "No-Rooz Pirooz" (Wishing you a prosperous New Year).

A key element of the Nowruz celebration is the 'Haft Seen' table. This traditional holiday table includes seven symbolic items, all starting with the Persian letter sin. Each representing spring and renewal. The 'Sofreh Haftseen' (tabletop) is set with a special table cloth, with the seven s-items, and other symbolic items (depending on local tradition).

An example of a 'Haft Seen' table.
We find on the 'Haft Seen' table (depending on which tradition):

  • Senjed (dried oleaster fruit)- representing love.
  • Serkeh (vinegar)- representing patience and age.
  • Seeb (apples)- representing health and beauty.
  • Sir (garlic)- representing medicine and healing.
  • Samanu (wheat pudding)- representing fertility and a sweet life.
  • Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass): representing the renewal of nature.
  • Somagh (spice/sumac meaning red)- the color of sunrise and spice of life.
  • Sonbol (hyacinth flower)- representing the new spring.
  • Sekkeh (coin)- representing prosperity.
  • Sabzeh Keshmesh (raisins)- sweetness of life.

  • Mahi Ghermez (gold fish)- A live gold fish in a bowl representing 'Life.'
  • Tokhm Morgh e Rangi (painted eggs)-representing fertility.
  • Ayneh (mirror)- representing reflection on the past.
  • Candles or lanterns- representing light and happiness.
  • An orange in water- representing the 'Earth.'
  • National colours-representing patriotism.
  • Bread.
  • Pomegranates.
Often, a book is placed on the table. This could be the Qur'an, The Avesta (Zoroastrian sacred texts), Divan-e Hafez (poetry), or any significant text. The 'Haft Seen' table remains up for thirteen days. On 'Sizdah beh dar' (the thirteenth day) families pack picnics and go to the park to eat,sing, and dance with other families. To symbolize the return of life to nature, it is tradition to bring the sprouted wheat grass (sabzeh), and to thro it into the grass or water. This will bring good luck. This day marks the end of Nowruz.

Zoroastrians believe there is one God called Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) and He created the world. They believe that the elements are pure and that fire represents God's light or wisdom. Ahura Mazda revealed the 'Truth' through the Prophet Zoroaster. The Zoroastrian book of Holy Scriptures is called 'The Avesta.' Zoroastrians traditionally pray several times a day and worship communally in a 'Fire Temple.'

Fig and Quince: Persian Cooking and Culture by Azita Houshiar

17th century, Shah Abbas II of Persia celebrating Nowruz.

Hajji Firuz singing and playing the tambourine. Tehran, March 2013.

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Hajji Firuz
Painted eggs.