The Nowruz Diaries; The Vernal Equinox
March 20, 2015
Imagine if Christmas, New Year’s and Easter were celebrated in one fortnight. It would be one family-food-music packed celebration. And that is what Nowruz feels like and is, respectively.
As with every holiday, where the historic background of the festival is not only appreciated, but celebrated, Nowruz accentuates the importance the Persians give to astronomy. With its roots in Zoroastrianism and even the older tradition of Mithraism, where the sun is respected, with prayers being addressed to the burning globe, the vernal equinox, the moment the earth starts its new orbit around the sun, crossing the celestial equator, is when the Persians mark as the beginning of their year. This falls on the 20th or 21st of March, at a different hour each year.
With spring-cleaning being a major part of Nowruz, preparations start early. As early as February. Rugs are dragged off the floors, rolled into cleaning services’ vans to be given a foamy scrub, while the floors they conceal get a scrubbing of their own. Dusting, vacuuming, mopping, washing, you name it, they do it. Several times. By the second week of March Nowruz cannot come soon enough…
Another tradition falling into the “renewal” category is buying clothes. Outfits are put together for the visits that take place during the two week celebrations. Shop windows are decorated with the season’s brightest colours, inviting the eager shoppers in for a “Nowruz treat” promising bargains.
The Nowruz celebrators don’t hit the shops for only fashion, but also stack up on fruit, pastries, nuts and drinks, geared up to host the plurality of guests pouring into their homes in groups during the holiday.
The most iconic constituent of Nowruz is the Haft Seen. Haft translating to seven and Seen referring to the letter “s” in Farsi.
A collection of seven elements starting with “seen” is set on a table or a decorative spread, each compartment symbolizing a value in Iranian culture.
Before the Muslim Caliphate’s invasion of Iran in 650, Haft Sheen was what the Persians were abiding by. After the invasion some of the Zoroastrian customs and Persian words were adapted to the Islamic customs and Arabic language.
(My own name being a victim of these modifications, has gone from Neelipar- with neeli meaning indigo/purple and par translating to petal forming a word that describes a water-lily or a morning glory- to Neelifar to be later pronounced as Neeloufar. Since the Persian scripture is different from the Latin alphabet, we have given ourselves the liberty of transcribing our names in any way we find visually pleasing. I alternate between Neeluphar and Niloufar.)
A mirror, candles, a bowl containing a small goldfish, a book of poetry or a holy book, painted eggs and a pot of Hyacinth are also placed next to the septet.
The items symbolize the following:
Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass); rebirth and the renewal of nature
Samanu (a sugar-infused pudding made from wheat); wealth
Seeb (apple); natural beauty
Seer (garlic); health
Serkeh (vinegar); maturity and patience. Originally sharaab (wine), serkeh was introduced as a substitute to the alcohol-bearing liquid whose consumption was prohibited in Islam.
Sumac (crushed berries forming a spice mixture); sunrise
Senjed (dried oleaster wild olive fruit); love
Originally it was believed that all elements must rise from a vegetation background. Modern day Haft-Seeners substitute any missing element with their fellow-components.
Saat (clock); time
Sekkeh (coin); prosperity
Decorated eggs; fertility
Mirror; truth, self-reflection and introspection
Nowruz being first and foremost a cultural festivity, with no ties to religion, has all Persians regardless of their religious background celebrating it. Depending on the family’s religious or spiritual beliefs, a holy book (the Avesta, the Torah, the Bible, or the Quaran) or a book of poetry (usually the Shahnameh, Hafiz’s Divan or Rumi’s Masnavi) sit next to the other elements portraying the dedication to literature and/or spirituality.
With the house clean, and the new outfits donned, on the eve of Nowruz, we treat ourselves to a feast of Sabzi-polo ba Mahi, a dish Niusha has prepared, described and photographed.
With our stomachs full and our heartbeats racing in anticipation, we gather around the Haft Seen where a practice of divination is carried out with the sonnets of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet. As the beginning of the year draws close a prayer that loosely translates to the following is chanted as a group;
O’ transformer of hearts and eyes
O’ rotator of days and nightsand moods and nature
Guide our fortune to the best
And just when the clock strikes the time of the spring equinox, cheers are chanted before pulling loved ones in for embraces and kisses. All to a melody we call Sornaye Noruz…
Today being the 20th of March, with only a few hours until the clock strikes 2:15 am wrapping up another winter, only to welcome a coral spring, I would like to wish all Persians, Afghans, Kurds, Turks and anyone else who observes the tradition of celebrating rebirth and renewal, a very happy Nowruz. And a vibrant and harlequin spring to all…