Nowruz: The New Year Celebrations in Persia

Of all the Persian national festivals, the New Year celebrations are at once the most important and the most colorful. This festival embodies a wealth of ancient rites and customs, and is about the only one in Persia which is not confined to the traditions of only one religious group. It symbolizes that continuity of the ancient Persian culture which has survived so many adversities and vicissitudes.

The Nowruz celebration stretches over a period of thirteen days, the last being a special occasion calling for particular ceremonies. The period begins with the first day of spring, when the sun enters the zodiac sign of the Ram. At Nowruz, people join nature in making a fresh start, full of joy and hope for the coming year.

The origin of Nowruz is traditionally attributed to Jamshid, the mightiest and the most glorious of the legendary kings of Persia. The legend is recorded by the celebrated historians Tabari and Biruni, as well as by Ferdowsi. One version claims that after Jamshid had taught his people the art of building, weaving, mining and making arms, he divided them into four appropriate classes, and then set out to conquer the demon hosts. Jamshid defeated them and subjected them to hard labor for the benefit of men. Next, he ordered the demons to build him a special crystal carriage. When it was ready, he entered the carriage and, to the joy and amazement of all the people, the demons lifted it into the air and Jamshid rode thus from Demavand to Babylon. The day was called Nowruz (the New Day) and was made an annual celebration.

Courtesy of Maryam Khosrowshahi, Sofreh: The Art of Persian Celebration (Woodbridge: ACC Publishing Group, 2017).

It may be safely assumed, however, that the Nowruz festival, essentially an agrarian celebration, owes its origin, at least in part, to the fertility cult, so common among the ancient Near and Middle Eastern nations. Some of the customs observed at Nowruz are reminiscent of Babylonian Zagmuk. The growing of “sabzeh” (fresh green shoots), which are later thrown into water, particularly brings to mind the Syrian cult of Adonis.

But it is the Ancient and Zoroastrian Persia which provides the background for most of the customs and ceremonies of Nowruz.

While the lunar calendar is used for Muslim festivals and holidays, Nowruz is calculated by the solar calendar. This was adopted in ancient times by the Zoroastrians, and is used today as the national calendar of Persia. However, one must bear in mind that the Zoroastrian year did not always begin on the 21st of March (1st of Farvardin). There are reasons to believe that at one time it began with the commencement of autumn. Again, at a certain period, prior to or during Sassanian times (226-651 A.D.) the beginning of the year was fixed at the vernal equinox, the 1st of Farvardin (21st March), and it was immediately preceded by a religious festival of five days. During this period, the spirits of the departed (Fravahrs) were said to visit their families, and houses were therefore cleaned and food and drink offered to the haunting spirits. Some of the Nowruz customs may refer to this festival, which was partly absorbed into the Nowruz ceremonies in Islamic times.

The Achaemenian kings (550-330 B.C.) celebrated the New Year in the Royal palaces with great pomp and ceremony. Sumptuous receptions were held, and the envoys of the various nations living in the vast Achaemenian empire presented their tributes and gifts. This homage by the envoys has been vividly depicted in the sculptures of the palaces built by Darios the Great and his son Xerxes.

In Sassanian times (226-652 A.D.) there was a vigorous revival of Persian nationalism. Nowruz, along with Mehregan, another ancient celebration, continued to be the main national festivals. During the six days of celebration of Nowruz, a plenary audience given by the “King of Kings” was the climax of the festivities at the Court. Merriment and rejoicing were heightened by musicians composing and performing appropriate pieces and court poets and singers contributing their art. The splendor of the Sassanian Court was, in fact, best exemplified by its lavish festivities at Nowruz.

Although the advent of Islam in the seventh century A.D. naturally brought with it new festivals and holidays, Nowruz was not overshadowed. On the contrary, together with Mehregan and some other old Iranian festivals, it was carried over to the Islamic period, and continued to be celebrated at the royal courts as in Sassanian times. The many graceful odes and sonnets concerning Nowruz to be found in the Divans of the Persian poets bear witness to the ever- lively spirit and unbroken importance of the festival for the Persian nation.

Today, while many of the ancient festivals have faded away in most parts of the country, Nowruz remains a national Persian festival, and its advent brings joy to the people. Although many of the old customs and ceremonies, as recorded in histories and travel books, have vanished with the passage of time, what does remain makes Nowruz the most fascinating of the Persian festivals, rich in folkloric details and symbolic remembrance.

The preparation for Nowruz begins well in advance. Children and young people particularly are excited at the thought of approaching Nowruz with its prospect of gifts, new clothes, and the round of festive parties. Some fifteen to ten days before Spring, each household starts preparing the “sabzeh”: grains of wheat or lentils are put into water to germinate; then the germinated grain is spread over a dish and allowed to grow. By the time Nowruz arrives, the grains have sent up a fresh mass of green blades as a token of spring. This decorative symbol of good omen is kept till the end of the holiday.

During the days immediately preceding Nowruz, an amusing spectacle is provided by the “re-lighters,” men wearing high hats, harlequin dress studded with small bells, often with their faces painted black, or wearing a grotesque masque. These messengers of joy parade the streets with a troop of performers, which may include dancers, acrobats and folk musicians, reciting folk songs and trying various tricks to amuse the spectators.

The Wednesday preceding the New Year calls for traditional ceremonies and performances. These historical rites and customs vary somewhat from region to region, but a common and essential ceremony consists of piling at least three small heaps of shrubbery in the courtyard and setting them alight. Then all the members of the family jump over the flames in turn, reciting a short rhyme of good augur: “My pallor to you, your ruddiness to me.” In Tehran and some other provinces, women who have a sick person in their family sometimes go out, incognito, to collect the ingredients required for a special soup which will hopefully hasten the recovery of the relative. Without revealing their face or uttering a word, they announce their demand by tapping with a spoon on a copper bowl. Many children make a game of imitating the women, by covering their face and going around collecting money or ingredients for the soup.

A thorough house cleaning is essential to the preparations for Nowruz: all the rugs and linen are washed, furniture meticulously cleaned, and, if possible, the house repaired and painted. In some regions, it was customary to break all the earthenware vessels and throw them out, replacing them with new ones.

Everyone is supposed to display new clothes, shoes, and hats for Nowruz. Children are particularly attached to this aspect of the festival. As the exact time of the New Year draws near, everyone gets ready for the occasion. The exact time of the movement of the Sun to the sign of the Ram is announced in larger cities by the ring of cannons. A few hours before this solemn moment, all the members of the family gather in the house. By this time, they have all bathed, men have had their hair cut, women have finished their toilet, and all have put on their new clothes. Candles or lamps are lit and a special table is spread in the main room. On it are placed a mirror, candle sticks, and the holy book, according to the family’s faith. There is also a bowl of water with a green leaf oating in it, a flask of rosewater, a piece of bread, herbs, fruits, candies and cakes especially made for Nowruz, and two other items particularly prepared: colored eggs and the “Haft-sin.” The latter is a special feature of Nowruz and consists of seven articles whose names begin with the letter “S.” As a rule, they are sib, sabzi, sir, serkeh, sumac, senjed and samanu; that is, apple, fresh herbs, garlic, vinegar, sumac, Bohemian olive and a sweet tasting food prepared with green wheat. Other articles of good omen may be added to those already mentioned.

Finally, when the moment arrives, the family gathering is infected with a spirit of joy and happiness. The members of the family embrace each other, greetings and good wishes are expressed and gifts are exchanged, the children generally being on the receiving side. The special food served on the New Year Eve consists mainly of steamed rice (pilav) mixed with herbs, and served with fried fish.

Visiting relatives and friends, a feature of the Nowruz, begins on the first day and continues to the end of the twelfth. The elder members of the family receive the visit first, followed by the junior members. A general air of gaiety, contentment and rejoicing pervades the atmosphere of these days.

In villages, young boys engage in wrestling and highly active games. In some cities, the old custom of playing kettle-drums (Naqqare) accompanied by a kind of oboe (karna, surna) on a special platform is still preserved.

Nowruz ceremonies are brought to an appropriate end by spending the thirteenth day in the open country. It is considered unlucky to stay at home, and on this day the country-side around the large cities is covered by groups of people in high spirits, who have trooped out to walk in the fresh green fields and enjoy a rest along the banks of running streams. They can be seen gathered around a samovar, walking along the river banks, enjoying music and singing or playing sports. Comic performers resembling the “ fire lighters” are particular favorites of the people.

The green shoots of wheat or lentil must be thrown out on the thirteenth day, and when possible, thrown into running water. By discarding the “sabzeh”, one throws out all misfortune and bad luck. By going out into the open country, one welcomes the spring and rejects the bad luck associated with the number thirteen.

On the return from the countryside the Nowruz holidays come to a close and there is almost a year to prepare for the next New Year festivities.