Celebrating Nowruz: The Persian New Year

January 14, 2018 | Blog | Anahita Ghaffari

Nowruz, literally meaning new day, marks a significant celebration for Iranians as it is in harmony with renewal and rebirth of nature in the northern hemisphere. Nowruz, the first day of the month of Farvardin is the Iranian New Year’s Day in the Persian calendar in conjunction with the spring equinox. The vernal equinox usually falls between March 19th and 21st and occurs on a different hour each year due to astronomical accuracy.

Yara Shahidi talks about the Persian New Year including the celebrations, types of food and gifts that come along with the holiday.

Nowruz is commemorated throughout societies and religious beliefs in multitude of countries. This ancient and time-honored celebration is a point at which millions of diverse people come together and celebrate in unity. The International Nowruz Day was declared by the United Nations General Assembly, in a resolution in 2010, at the advocacy effort of a number of nations that share this historical holiday namely Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan.

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The Nowruz celebration has numerous components and unofficially starts a few weeks before the New Year’s Day, as families kick off the annual deep cleaning of their houses and do their shopping for specialty food items and new clothes. Households invest the weeks preceding Nowruz cleansing their residences in a practice called in Farsi as “khaneh takani”, meaning shaking the house clean. This expression is taken seriously considering the spring clean takes place as a deep cleansing ritual both for the household and for the spirit.

On the last eve of the last Wednesday of the year, known as Chaharshanbe Suri or the Persian Festival of Fire, special customs and rituals take place in which everyone particularly children eagerly participate. Most notably, during this night Iranians build numerous public bonfires and jump over them. As they jump they chant “give me your red color and take back my sickly pallor”. Other parts of the celebrations include traditions of qashoq zani (banging spoons) and kuze shekani (smashing the pot). Keeping with the theme of annual cleanse and a fresh start, the Festival of Fire symbolizes finishing the year off with a purification ritual and dissipation of misfortunes.

An integral part of the Nowruz celebration is the haft seen. The haft seen, meaning seven s’s is a traditional spread of various elements and is set either on a table or on the floor. These seven items whose names start with the letter s, each have a symbolic meaning that is meant to bring good luck and prosperity to the household. In addition to the seven s’s, each family has their own twist on what goes on the haft seen spread, as some place the holy book, mirrors and candelabras, books of poetry by the master poets Hafiz, Sa’adi, and Rumi. At the time of the new year, families and friends gather around the haft seen and exchange gifts. Sometimes a prayer or a poem is read as everyone wishes for a year of health, wealth, and good fortune.

The Nowruz celebrations go on for a few weeks after the New Year’s Day, with families visiting each other (eid didani) beginning with the oldest members to whom respects must be paid first.  It is traditional for the youth to be gifted (eidi) with cash, sometimes placed in the pages of the Quran for blessing. Like any true celebration, nowruz food takes centre stage in these family gatherings. There are numerous ceremonial sweet and savoury foods prepared specifically to be served during these functions, and these delicacies differ in each region of Iran.

The final custom of Nowruz sizdah bedar, occurs on the 13th day of the new year, when everyone goes on a nature excursion and spends the day picnicking outside with their family members and close friends. The purpose of this outing is to shun the bad luck, create memories with the community,  and finish off the new year holidays on a high note.

As the Iranian diaspora grows in numerous countries, large Nowruz celebrations, including the traditional new year markets take place in many major cities across Canada, United States, as well as Europe. In the last few years, Canadian prime ministers and American presidents have addressed the Iranian community, among others celebrating this occasion at the start of the Persian New Year. In these speeches which often reflect the political climate of the moment, the relationship between Iran and the west, and the role of the Iranian diaspora in their respective communities is discussed.  In 2015, the First lady Michelle Obama hosted a Nowruz celebration in the White House, complete with a haft seen and a performance by the Silk Road Dance Company.

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