Did You Miss Nowruz? Me, Too

Did You Miss Nowruz? Me, Too

Wouldn’t it be great if a holiday existed to promote values of peace and solidarity between generations and within families? To my surprise — and perhaps yours — such a holiday does exist, and you might have missed it. I know I did. It’s Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which takes place on the day of the vernal equinox (the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere), March 20 this year.

According to a CNN article, Nowruz is celebrated by millions of people around the world and is something like Christmas, New Year’s, and Fourth of July combined. That sounds pretty exciting, and it gets even better when you add fire festivities; delicious meats, rice, and spices; family gatherings; street dances; and loud banging on pots.

Well, I might be okay without the last item — my dog would get upset at such noise — but I do like the idea of a holiday representing a time of reconciliation and neighborliness, one that contributes to cultural diversity and friendship among peoples and different communities, according to the United Nations. We sure could use something like this today.

Historical Roots

Nowruz consists of two words: Now or no, meaning new, and ruz or rooz meaning day — new day when put together. This holiday and its associated events has been celebrated for around 4,000 years in Iran and Central Asian countries, former parts of ancient Persian empires. Nowruz emerged as people of these areas left nomadic life and established settlements to start a new phase in human civilization. Today, it’s the world's only event that’s celebrated at the exact same moment throughout the world. The celebration isn’t connected to religion, but based on astronomical celestial events, even though Nowruz is deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion.

In 1725 BC, the world's first philosopher and prophet of the Zoroastrian religion, Zarathushtra, improved the ancient Indo-Iranian calendar — beginning the Zoroastrian year on the date of the vernal equinox. Zarathushtra established an observatory in the modern-day province of Sistan in southeastern Iran and was able to create a solar calendar consisting of 365 days, 5 hours and 48 minutes.

During the reign of the Sassanid kings between 224 – 651 AD, preparations began 25 days before Nowruz. Craftsmen and builders of the royal court constructed 12 mud-brick columns and various seeds were sown on top of each one, representing a month. By the time it was Nowruz, the seeds had grown into majestic decorative plants. The king spoke in front of a noble audience, and was greeted by the highest priest of the empire and government officials. Every invited person gave a gift to the king until the sixth day of Nowruz, when members of the royal family visited the royal court. During Nowruz, an official amnesty was put in order for those convicted of minor crimes. People throughout the empire celebrated this event for 13 days.

Even though Nowruz is a celebration of a celestial event, it’s deeply rooted in the mythology of the Persians — focusing on the philosophical aspects of light conquering darkness, good conquering evil, the warmth of spring conquering the cold winter.

According to ancient mythical stories written in the Persian epic Shahnameh, Nowruz was introduced during the reign of the mythical king Jamshid, who defeated evil demons and made them his servants, capturing their treasures and jewels. He then became the ruler of everything on Earth except the heavens, while the world was devastated after the war between him and the demons; the trees were dead and had lost all their leaves, and Earth had turned into a dark and lifeless place. To reach the heavens, Jamshid ordered the demons to build him a throne made from the captured jewels. When it was finished, he sat on it and commanded the demons to lift him high up into the sky. As that was done, sunrays hit the jewels and the sky was illuminated with all the world's colors. The rays beaming from Jamshid revived the trees and plants, turning them green and full of leaves. Life on Earth began to thrive as Jamshid rose like the sun. People were amazed by the sight of Jamshid and overwhelmed him with even more treasures and jewels.

This day of celebration was named Nowruz and it marked the first day of the year. Jamshid later rescued his people from a harsh winter that would have killed all creatures on Earth. Mythological survival stories with Jamshid as the main character are considered symbols regarding the historical events when Indo-Iranian Aryans abandoned their Neolithic lifestyles as hunters-gatherers and became settlers on the Iranian mainland. Settlements were profoundly dependent on their crops, which were dependent on the outcome of the seasons. The spring equinox, therefore, marked an important event in the lives of ancient Iranians.

How to Celebrate

Two major traditions mark the final days of the old year: children bang on pots and knock on doors asking for sweets or money — sort of like Halloween — and on the last Wednesday of the year, Chaharshanbe Soori (Red Wednesday), crowds gather in public places and jump over bonfires (yes, you read that right), singing traditional songs and repeating the phrase, “Give me your beautiful red color and take back my sickly pallor.”

On Nowruz, traditions include the Haft Sin table, which contains seven symbolic items beginning with the Farsi letter "s" — including wheat grass, herbs, dried food, and vinegar — all representing various hopes for the new year, such as health, wealth, and prosperity. For example, "sir," the word for garlic, represents protection from illness and evil, while vinegar, or "serkeh," represents longevity and patience. The tables are also adorned with mirrors, candles, decorated eggs, water and various fruits.

The new year is also welcomed by Iranian families with sparkling homes and new clothes. Friends and neighbors are visited, meals are shared and parties are hosted. Communities come together to celebrate the beginning of spring — doing so in hopes they’ll always be surrounded by healthy and clean surroundings, like their home. And, the Iranian version of Santa Claus — Amoo Nowruz or Uncle Nowruz — along with a small, cheerful jester, are also Nowruz staples.

As for food, that’s a big part of Nowruz as well. Various dishes featuring fish, meat, rice, noodles, and beans are peppered with fresh mint, tarragon, basil, and other green herbs. The main dish is Sabzi Polo Mahi, fried fish beside rice filled with green herbs.

FYI, while you’ll find Nowruz celebrations in the U.S. in almost every state, the biggest is arguably in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Persian populations outside Iran.

And, the celebrations don't end when the new year is ushered in. Thirteen days after Nowruz, families head outdoors and throw the wheat grass they've been growing (and using to decorate Haft Sin tables) into flowing waters. This tradition is thought to ensure good luck for the year even though it’s associated with a number — 13 — usually considered unlucky. The wheat grass allegedly absorbs all the negative energy of the home, so it must be thrown out.

Ready to mark your calendars for Nowruz in 2020?

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