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The Traditions That Shape Us:
Celebrating The Persian New Year (Nowruz)
"In winter the bare boughs that seem to sleep work covertly, preparing for their Spring."
Sunday, March 20 at exactly 3:33 PM GMT will bring in the Spring Solstice, a time centered around rebirth and growth. At this time we say goodbye to the dark, cold winter and embrace the warmth of spring. This day is very significant for me personally because it marks the Persian New Year, Nowruz (meaning new day). Celebrated by Persians, Parsees, Kurds, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and many other cultures, this festive day is rich with history and traditions which date back 3000 years to the Zoroastrians.
As an Iranian immigrant living in the United States, my mother and father made great efforts to ensure that the traditions of Nowruz were not lost to our new home. March would begin with a full spring cleaning of our house followed by the joyous preparations for the 13-day festivities. For my siblings and me, Nowruz has always been a reminder of our heritage and the rich Persian culture we are proud to be a part of. From its customary rituals performed to bring in the new year to the foods and gatherings shared, Nowruz has and will continue to be a part of who I am.
Chahar Shanbeh Soori, Festival of Fire
Tell a child that you get to jump over fire and watch the shocking reaction you will receive. That is how I felt the first time I was told to jump over the fire. Perhaps the most exciting of the Nowruz celebrations, Chahar Shanbeh Soori (meaning red Wednesday) is celebrated on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Persian year and marks the first festivity of the 13-day Nowruz celebrations.
In Iran, the occasion is celebrated with bonfires in the streets where people can come and jump over, chanting Sorkhie to az man, Zardieh man az to (meaning your redness (health) is mine, my paleness (pain) is yours). Of course in the Californian town my siblings and I grew up in, there was no such street celebration. Instead, my parents would make small bonfires in our backyard where we could perform the ritual. Today, as the Iranian community continues to grow all around the world, the event is more openly celebrated. My niece loves to invite her non-Iranian friends to enjoy and learn about this ancient festival of fire.
For us Iranians, the inception of spring begins the 13-day celebration. We begin by decorating a special table called Haft-sin (meaning seven S’s) with items that begin with the letter S in the Persian language. Each item has a significant meaning, both spiritually as well as physically, and tells a story about rebirth.
At the center of the table, a mirror is placed symbolizing reflection on the past year, an orange in a bowl to symbolize the Earth, colorful eggs symbolizing fertility, a holy or poetry book, goldfish in a bowl symbolizing life, and candles to radiate light and happiness.
The Traditional Foods
From when I can remember, Nowruz has always been synonymous with sabzi polo (aromatic herb rice) with white fish. Of course, as a child, it is not the most appealing meal but with age, I have grown to appreciate the simple yet delicious dish. I remember my father telling us the story behind this traditional meal - the fresh herbs in the dish symbolize new growth and rebirth, while the fish represents new life and fertility – while my mother prepared the feast. Close family and friends would come to our home to celebrate around a beautifully prepared table filled with kuku sabzi (fresh herb and chives frittata), fresh sabzi (fresh herbs), red radishes, yogurt, and bread with panir (Persian Feta) all of which traditionally accompany most Persian meals.
It should be known that during the Nowruz celebrations, it is customary to visit the homes of relatives and friends – starting with the eldest and working your way down the ladder of relatives. My fondest memories are of these visits which always included a myriad of fresh fruits, mixed nuts and dried fruits, traditional Nowruz sweets, and of course, the Persian tea brewed to perfection.
I loved everything about Nowruz, from the festivities to the food to the time spent with family and friends. But as a child, one thing made the whole celebration special - the gift. Unlike Christmas or Hannukah, Nowruz is not celebrated with an exchange of material gifts among friends and family. The tradition is that the eldest in the family gives money or gold coins to the younger ones symbolizing blessing for a more prosperous new year. You can imagine the joy I felt as a young child going to the homes of relatives and family friends to receive dollar bills, some of which I still have today.
We complete the festivities on day 13, called Sizdah bedar (letting go). It is normally spent outdoors, near a stream or river feasting on various Persian dishes, dancing, playing games, enjoying the precious time spent with family and friends. Perhaps the most important part of this day is knotting the sabzeh (sprouted wheat/lentil) from the haft-sin with a wish for the year – most unmarried girls would wish for a husband, yours included - and then releasing it into the water to symbolize letting go and going forward in good fortune.
It is a very joyous and symbolic celebration filled with love, delicious food and hope for a new beginning. I enjoy sharing this special occasion with friends from different cultures and backgrounds so they can experience the traditions and learn about the history of Nowruz.