Hope, Respect, and Honor: What It Looks Like to Celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year

published Mar 19, 2021
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Towards the end of March, the vernal equinox is celebrated worldwide with a variety of holidays and festivities. In Iran, Afghanistan, and many other countries, more than 300 million people celebrate the arrival of spring with Persian New Year. We call this day Nowruz (pronounced No-rooz), which means “new day.” 

For more than 3,000 years, Nowruz has held great significance for those of Persian origin. The holiday guides our worldview, by giving hope, reinforcing respect for traditions and our elders, celebrating nature and new beginnings, and bringing people together to honor the past and look to the future. These days I celebrate Nowruz because it is a reminder of who I am and where I come from. Having lived outside of Iran for nearly 40 years, it is a reminder of my roots and how my early years as a child in Tehran continue to shape the person I am today.

As with most celebrations and public events during COVID, Iranians will be celebrating Nowruz in their homes this year, using Zoom and similar technology to connect to their wider families and to online events put together by Iranian organizations.

Preparing for Nowruz

Nowruz begins on the first day of spring, the vernal equinox, and lasts 13 days. Sal tahvil is the exact moment of the spring equinox and the beginning of Nowruz, and Seez-deh Be-dar is the last day of the holiday. The entire period is known as the Nowruz holiday.

Spring in Iran is delightfully pleasant, with temperatures high enough for all sorts of flowers to bloom. Weeks before Nowruz, you start to feel the excitement and anticipation in the air.  There is a noticeable hustle and bustle in the streets, with vendors selling seasonal items and ingredients for the coming celebrations.

In preparation both for the arrival of guests and for the new year itself, households are thrown into a frenzied ritual of spring cleaning. Khaneh Tekani, which translates to “shaking the house,” sees homes being turned inside out and cleaned from floor to ceiling.

The first real event of the Nowruz season is Chahar Shanbeh Soori, a celebration of fire that takes place on the last Tuesday of the Persian calendar year. As darkness falls, small bonfires are built across the city, and you can see their glow and hear the sound of firecrackers well into the early hours of the morning. Young men and women jump over the fires, which symbolize warmth and light, singing “Zardi-ye man az to, sorkhi-ye to az man,” which is a plea to the fire to take away our sickness and ailments, and to offer us health, warmth, and energy.

Setting Up the Haft-Seen Table

To prepare for Nowruz, it’s important to set up a haft-seen table a couple of days before the equinox. Haft-seen is Farsi for “seven S’s,” and the table is decorated with seven symbolic items to welcome the new year, each beginning with the letter S.

  1. Sabzeh: Sprouting wheat, lentils, or seeds, representing the birth cycle in nature
  2. Samanu: Sweet pudding made of sprouted wheat, representing sweet and endearing memories
  3. Senjed: Dried, silver berries (also called Persian olives), representing love
  4. Seer: Garlic, representing health and medicine
  5. Seeb: Apple, representing beauty
  6. Somaq: Sumac seeds, representing sunrise, and symbolizing the tipping of the balance from darkness to light
  7. Serkeh: Vinegar, representing age and patience

Each year I set up my own haft-seen table. I can easily purchase sabzeh, the sprouted wheat, from my local Middle Eastern store, but I prefer the ritual of soaking the wheat and sprouting it myself. Here in Seattle, where I live, early spring tends to lack sunshine and warmth, but that’s not going to get in the way of having my sabzeh ready. To help the wheat along, I lay out a small electric heating pad on the kitchen counter to keep the soaked wheat warm as it begins to sprout. 

While the seven items above are traditionally found on a haft-seen table, you’ll often find additional things nestled into this elaborate arrangement.

  • A mirror, representing light and reflection
  • Candles, representing the light within and divinity
  • Coins, representing wealth
  • A goldfish in a bowl, representing life
  • Hyacinth flowers, representing spring and renewal
  • Painted eggs, representing fertility

My table always features painted eggs, and one of my favorite designs is the paisley pattern. The leaf-shaped design originated in Persia before spreading to the rest of the world through India and Scotland. I have made one departure from tradition, though: Instead of buying a goldfish, I place my old tablet on the table with a fishbowl app running in the background. It’s okay to blend ancient traditions with modern-day tools.

On the night before Nowruz itself, you will find many Iranian families eating sabzi polo, one of the many Persian dishes that incorporate herbs for their bright color and brilliant fresh taste. In addition to fresh herbs, which are a symbol of rebirth and health, sabzi polo also celebrates the art of making fluffy rice with a crispy base called tahdig, which is a signature element of Persian cuisine. You can find my recipe here.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

The Arrival of the New Year

The precise time of the arrival of the new year is called Sal Tahvil in Farsi. It is a common belief that how you celebrate that moment determines the caliber and quality of the upcoming year. In any given year, Sal Tahvil can fall at any time of the day or night; nevertheless, families will always be gathered around the haft-seen table, listening to the sound of the countdown clock marking the beginning of a new year. This private moment is shared only with members of one’s own family. As Sal Tahvil falls, we embrace one another and exchange good wishes with such sentiments as Saal-e no Mobarak, Eid-Mobarak, which translates to “congratulations and best wishes for the new year.”

Shortly after Sal Tahvil, the complex ritual known as Eyd Deedani starts: paying visits to family and friends. This is not a simple or casual process; there is a protocol and a hierarchy. It’s important to pay respect to the elders by visiting them on the first day of Nowruz, and only then working your way through the rest of the family. It takes a lot of planning and coordination to know who to visit and when to be home to host your own visitors — and yet somehow it always works out. This year, many of these visits will be virtual, my family’s included.

While gifts are not given for Nowruz, there is still much generosity. Visitors are always offered large quantities of fruit, roasted nuts, tea, and Nowruz-specific sweets, such as naan nokhodchi (chickpea flour cookes), naan berenji (rice flour cookies), shirini keshmeshi (raisin cookies), and rosewater and cardamom baklava. And the greetings are effusive: You are kissed on both cheeks and offered good wishes and congratulations for the new year. These family visits also offer the opportunity to let bygones be bygones, with a deep belief in starting the year with best intentions.

As for the food, know that Persians, food, and gatherings go hand in hand, and every single one of our holidays revolves around food. Nowruz is no different, with a series of symbolic dishes, both elaborate and simple. During the 13 days of Nowruz, spring herbs continue to feature in dishes like kuku sabzi, a fresh herbs frittata, and aash-e reshteh, a hearty soup of beans and herbs with noodles (noodles are believed to be a symbol of good fortune).

The Final Event

After 13 days of celebrations, there is one final, very significant event to attend to, and that is Seez-deh Be-dar. Seez-deh means the number 13, and Be-dar translates to “outing” or “getting rid of.” There are various interpretations of Seez-deh Be-dar — some focus on the negative association with the number 13, and see it as a bad omen to be inside on the 13th and final day of Nowruz celebrations. So on this day, families leave their homes and head out to an outdoor destination, whether a lake, a river, or a nearby park. The car will invariably be packed with the means to make tea, along with sweets, fruits and nuts, and picnic food. 

Whatever the location, there is a ritual that needs to be completed. Remember the sabzeh, the sprouted wheat from the haft-seen table? There is a lot riding on these delicate shoots, for sabzeh is believed to absorb all of the negativity and sickness from our home during the Nowruz celebrations. So it needs to be released back into the environment, typically to be carried away in a river or a stream.

Some look at sabzeh much like a wishing well. The delicate tall grasses are gently tied together to embrace a wish that the sabzeh can carry with it. The knotted sabzeh, along with the wish, is then gently released into the current.  Some wish to find love, while others wish for better connections with their loved ones. This tradition is deeply romantic and poetic in nature. Such is the joy and fun in a culture that believes in mythology and assigns symbolic meanings to its deeply rooted rituals.

This year, I’m wishing for an end to the global pandemic, so that once again we can embrace our loved ones and kiss them on both cheeks to regain that deep belonging and connection we have been missing.