21 March, the start of spring, marks the beginning of the Persian new year. Rouzeh threw a small party, which saw myself, Elvis (that is, Peter) and his fiancee Patience enjoy a relaxed evening at Rouzeh’s place in Pretoria.
For Iranians, the new year is called ‘Nowruz’, meaning ‘new day’, though the Farsi transliteration, due to the many Farsi dialects, knows some 20 different varieties. The term Nowruz first appeared only in the second century AD, but at least since the Achaemenid era, possibly from as early as 600BC onwards, did the official year start with the spring equinox, which occurs around the 21st of March, the beginning of spring, when, in the northern Hemisphere, the length of the day starts to overtake the length of the night.
It’s not unlikely that the geographical spread of the Achaemenid empire resulted in the current widespread celebrations of Nowruz. Not only is Nowruz celebrated from northwestern China through central Asia to the Crimea, it’s also observed in parts of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Furthermore, the Jewish Purim festival is said to derive from the Persian new year and, of course, the Romans, up to around 150BC, celebrated the start of the new year at the start of spring as well (though they started at the ides of March, the 15th, which incidentally was also the date Caesar was killed), hence September being called the seventh month, October the 8th, etc. Incidentally, when the Romans realigned the start of the new year to January, the month was named after the two-faced god Janus, one for looking back and one for looking forward.
Nowruz was, most likely, first celebrated by Zoroastrians. Though that religion, considered to be the ‘father’ of all monotheistic religions, only entered historical records around the time the Achaemenids are known to have started to observe Nowruz, the religion’s founder, Zarathushtra, considered by the ancient Greeks to be the father of both magic and astrology, might have lived around the year 1000BC.
The reason for celebrating the new year on the first day of spring, however, is shrouded in history, besides being a reasonably obvious choice as a point of yearly rebirth. One myth, related in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, tells of the legendary king Jamshid, who had an elaborate throne constructed, after which he was celebrated by all the world’s creatures, calling the day of the celebrations Nowruz.
Historical indications to back this up include Persepolis, known to Iranians as Takhte-e-Jamshid, the throne of Jamshid. There, processions etched in stone are considered by some scholars to represent the bringing of gifts by peoples from all over the king’s empire.
Perhaps more interestingly, the king Jamshid might symbolize the transition of the Indo-Iranians from animal hunting to animal husbandry, basically commemorating the time when Iranians settled on the Iranian plateau after traveling from Europe, around the Caspian sea, to what is now Iran.
Those in Europe who celebrate Nowruz as the start of the new year are typically ethnic minorities who entered Europe during the Turkish rule of south-east Europe. This includes the Bektashi in Albania, an Islamic Sufi order. But they aren’t the only ones. Some pagan Europeans celebrated the start of the new year with the start of spring until the late middle ages.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, Islam has had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Nowruz. As it originated before the arrival of the prophet, that is, Muahammad, it’s sometimes considered un-islamic. Khomeini, in his first post-revolution speech, declared that Nowruz would not be celebrated as long as the world suffered from injustice. Which, I suppose, would be as long man lives.
Nevertheless, the two-week celebrations surrounding the new year in Iran are still the most important holiday there, even though leaders like Khamenei and Ahmadinejad both have tried to downplay the festivities, but with little success.
In Iran, new year’s celebrations and traditions are comparable to everywhere else. They involve drinking and dancing, but also jumping over bonfires, to cleanse oneself, the cleaning of the house, buying of new clothes and, interestingly, the purchase of flowers. Gifts are exchanged and families are visited.
Jumping over the bonfires is done on the evening before the last Wednesday of the year and it’s called ‘Red Wednesday’ and celebrates the light winning over the darkness, an obvious reference to Zoroastrianism.
Also, according to tradition, the living are visited by the spirits of their ancestors in the last days of the year. Kids, re-enacting these visits, wrapped in shrouds, run through the streets banging on pots and pans, knocking on doors, asking for treats. The link to fireworks with new year’s celebrations seems obvious and I suspect there might be a link with Hallowe’en as well, though that is said to derive from the Celtic festival of Samhain (“summer’s end”), possibly also the beginning of the Celtic new year, and the Christian All Saints day, which doesn’t seem to have a clear historical origin.
Probably the most interesting part of Iranian Nowruz celebrations are the haft sin, Persian for seven ‘S’s, a group of seven items starting with the letter s. An Iranian family celebrating Nowruz will collect these seven items and have them on display for the new year. These seven items symbolize the Seven Bounteous Creations from Zoroastrianism. These are sky, water, earth, plants, animals, man and fire. As Zoroastrianism sees the physical world as a natural matrix of these seven creations in which life and growth are interdependent, mankind has been tasked, as the only conscious creation, with caring for the universe, with the final goal being harmony and perfection.
However, three thousand years of tradition can’t be left unchanged. Now, the seven ‘S’s and their representations are:
- Sabzeh: wheat, barley or lentil sprouts, symbolizing rebirth.
- Samanu: a sweet pudding made from wheat germ, symbolizing affluence.
- Senjed: the dried fruit of the oleaster, or Russian-olive, tree, symbolizing love.
- Sir: garlic, symbolizing medicine.
- Sib: apples, symbolizing beauty and health.
- Somaq: sumac berries, symbolizing (the color of) sunrise.
- Serkeh: vinegar, symbolizing age and patience.
Obviously, it might not always be too easy to get the right items together and some ‘S’s are sometimes replaced by others:
- Sonbol: the fragrant hyacinth flower, symbolizing the coming of spring.
- Sekkeh: coins for prosperity and wealth.
- Sa’at: a clock.
- Sepand or sepanj or esfand: seeds of wild rue often placed in a small incense burner and burned just after the turn of the year.
- Siah-dane: black seeds.
- Si-Ni: the tray designed for carrying haft sin items from place to place.
And other items might show up as well, not necessarily starting with the letter s, but typically having some obvious symbolical, historical or spiritual meaning. A cute add-on is sometimes a gold fish, in a bowl (which Rouzeh did have), symbolizing both life and the fact that the sun is leaving the zodiacal sign of pisces at the start of spring.
Another interesting add on are decorated, painted, eggs, with the egg being a symbol of rebirth, which was later adopted by early Christians as a symbol of Jesus’ rebirth. Indeed, sculptures on the walls of Persepolis show people carrying eggs to the king, Jamshid.
And, if you’re wondering, the introduction of the Easter Bunny derives from the Saxon celebrations surrounding the spring equinox, where the spring goddess Eostre (‘Easter’) was personified by the hare.
Then, on the thirteenth day of the new year, with the twelve constellations of the zodiac controlling the months of the year and each ruling the earth for a thousand years, after which the sky and earth collapse in chaos, it’s time to sing and dance, typically at family picnics. The sabzeh, grown for the haft sin, is thrown into running water, to exorcise the demons from the household. A related tradition is the process of lying to someone and then making them believe it.
And then there’s the gentleman called Haji Firouz, Symbolizing the Sumerian god of sacrifice, killed at the end of each year, being reborn at the begging of the next, he usually has a face, painted black, symbolizing good luck, and is dressed in red.
Though the earliest historical records point to the Iranians being the source of Nowruz celebrations, some scholars believe that the they, as a whole, might have been borrowed by the Indo-Iranians from the Mesopotamians, whose land they occupied from the first millennium BC onwards.
And you thought it was only the beginning of spring.
So, the fish is still alive. Rouzeh wasn’t able to find sprouts, though I offered to find some Brussel’s sprouts for her. We played Scrabble till late and we didn’t jump over any fires.