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Nowruz 2024: Celebrating the Persian New Year and Its Cultural Significance

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Nowruz- Paradoxically, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s most popular holiday predates the official religion by a considerable margin. Nowruz, which means “New Day” in Farsi, is the Persian New Year and the first day of spring. The Middle East and Central Asia observe the holiday, which normally falls on or around March 21. 

Nowruz is a national holiday celebrated by Iranians of virtually all ethnicities and religions. Celebrations may date back to Cyrus the Great’s reign in the sixth century B.C. Many of the season’s traditions have roots in Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic faith still practised by some 25,000 in Iran.

Shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, some hardliners unsuccessfully tried to suppress the holiday due to its pre-Islamic origins. But Iran has never severed connections to its pre-Islamic past. “Iran’s advancements after Islam are incomparable to its past. However, the pre-Islamic history of Iran is also part of our history,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in 2008. Most Iranians still look to the ancient Persian Empire as a source of pride.

The following is an overview of traditions associated with Nowruz.

Why We Celebrate Nowruz

We can state with certainty that the Persian people have been celebrating the spring equinox in one way or another since at least 1000 BC, and Nowruz has always been a festival of the early spring. This festival was known as Navasarda, or “the new day,” in Old Persian. It makes sense to wish to commemorate this change in the seasons with a special festival: one that honours conquering the gloom and chill of winter, or one that celebrates the rebirth and rejuvenation that spring brings. Animism, which is defined as “the practice of finding the divine and the spiritual within the essence of things in the natural world around you,” is a part of its roots. 

The Zoroastrian idea of اَمِشَه سْپِنتَه Amesha Spenta, “the divine,” is strongly related to this. Why We Celebrate Nowruz

We can state with certainty that the Persian people have been celebrating the spring equinox in one way or another since at least 1000 BC, and Nowruz has always been a festival of the early spring. This festival was known as Navasarda, or “the new day,” in Old Persian. 

It makes sense to wish to commemorate this change in the seasons with a special festival: one that honours conquering the gloom and chill of winter, or one that celebrates the rebirth and rejuvenation that spring brings. Animism, which is defined as “the practice of finding the divine and the spiritual within the essence of things in the natural world around you,” is a part of its roots. The Zoroastrian idea of اَمِشَه سْپِنتَه Amesha Spenta, “the divine,” is strongly related to this.

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A Spring Clean and New Clothes (لباسِ نو و خانه‌تکان\)

Beginning the New Year with a clean slate is a central concept of Nowruz celebrations. Because of this, it’s customary to buy new clothes for the New Year and “shake down the house” (also known as “khāne-takāni,” or “a spring clean”) in the days preceding Nowruz. Although it’s possible to purchase these new outfits well in advance of Nowruz, it’s crucial that they wait to be worn until the actual day of the spring equinox, or New Year’s Day. 

“Taking the house apart” In khāne-takāni, cleaning tasks include vacuuming all carpets, painting, organising the garage, attic, and backyard, and general tidying. The rite of دόد و بازدόد did-o bāz-did “New Year familial visits” is strongly related to this spring cleaning, because

Seeing the Haft (هفت سٌن)

Persian families customarily create a unique سُفره sofre, or “tablecloth,” for the occasion of Nowruz. This “tablecloth” is embellished with seven distinctive articles, known as the “7 S’s,” which symbolise the New Year. More than just a tablecloth, this exquisitely adorned سُفره sofre serves as the hub of activity for the Nowruz celebrations.

 Every family takes great pride in designing their own space, which also serves as an opportunity for them to express their unique style and creative flare. Family members and friends will be visiting each other’s Haft Seen displays over the next few days; these visits are known as “visits and revisits,” or دόد و بازدόد did-o bāz-did. It is usual throughout the visit for The table above outlines the seven principle components of the Haft Seen, but there are usually a few additional items which are placed upon the sofre.

 For example, it is common to place a book of personal significance upon one’s tablecloth, such as the Divān of Hāfez, the Qur’ān, the Shāhnāme, or the Avestā. It is also common to find a mirror, a goldfish in a bowl, candlesticks, and/or painted eggs placed on a family’s sofre. Finally, there are three more S’s that can optionally be included in the Haft Seen. These are: سِکّه sekke ‘coins’, سُنبُل sonbol ‘hyacinth’, and ساعت sā’at ‘a clock’.

Some will talk of an older, more traditional, هفت شین Haft Sheen, which used objects beginning with the letter ش sh instead of س s. It is thought that this practice was changed due to its inclusion of شراب sharāb ‘wine’ as one of the objects, which is forbidden in modern-day Iran.

 However, this remains highly disputed, for many reasons, but from a linguistic perspective we can see that the word شراب sharāb is an Arabic loan word, so that damages any argument that the word sharāb could have been used in a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian setting.

The Bedar Sizdah (سόزده بدر)

After Nowruz, the Haft Seen remains in the house for thirteen days. The thirteenth day of the holidays is known as Sizdah Bedar, or سόزده بدر. As the traditional Nowruz celebrations come to a close on this day, Iranian families have a picnic outside. Because of this, Sizdah Bedar is frequently referred to as the “Day of Nature,” or روز طبیعت ruz-e tabi’at. 

A traditional dish for a Sizdah Bedar picnic is ĩاهو و سِکَنجَبین kāhu va sekanjabin, which is simply yet deliciously dipped lettuce leaves in vinegar-honey sauce. Other typical Sizdah Bedar picnic fare includes barbecues, آشِ رشته āsh-e reshte, or “thick noodle soup,” and آشِ دوغ āsh-e dugh, or “yoghurt soup.” It is traditional to throw the سبزه sabze from one’s Haft Seen into the flowing water after the picnic lunch. This concludes theTraditionally, after meal, one should immerse the سبزه sabze from their Haft Seen in running water. Giving one’s sabze back to nature completes the springtime cycle of rebirth and regeneration. 

April Fool’s Day and Sizdah Bedar frequently fall on the same day. This is also a famous day for pranks among the Persian populace. دروغِ سόزده dorugh-e sizdah, or “a Sizdah lie,” is the Persian version of an April Fool’s joke, or a French poisson d’avril.

Nowruz today: how is the Persian New Year celebrated in different places around the world?

Nowruz is celebrated by many cultures and countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, some communities in Pakistan and India, Albania, by minority groups in Western China, by some of the Turkic republics of Russia, by minority groups in Syria, and by diaspora all around the world, especially in the USA, Canada, Bahrain and Western Europe.

In this section, we want to give the reader a little insight into the different ways Nowruz is celebrated by region. Of course, for the sake of brevity, we had to be selective, so we have looked at three examples below in greater detail. In recognition of the breadth of this celebration and its importance for so many different people, since 2009 Nowruz has been included on UNESCO’s list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. 

(افغانستان) Afghanistan

The Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue announced in March 2022—after the group had taken over the nation a few months earlier—that official Nowruz celebrations would no longer take place in Afghanistan because the holiday is ostensibly “pagan.” Despite this order, a lot of Afghans are still celebrating Nowruz, or as it’s known in Pashto, نوی ɩال newai kāl, in secret this year. 

In Afghanistan, making haft mewa, or “7 fruits,” a particular dried fruit and nut mix made with, you guessed it, seven distinct types of fruit and nuts, is a ritual during the holiday of Nowruz. Families vary in the specific combination they use, but often it consists of: ɩشمش kishmish ‘raisins’, سنجد sanjid ‘oleaster’, پسته pista ‘pistachio’, Ɇارمغز chār-maghz ‘walnut’, بادام bādām ‘almond’, زردآلو zard-ālu ‘apricot’, ΁ندق funduq ‘hazlenut’, and/orThe seven ingredients are then washed, peeled, mixed together, and soaked in water. 

Sometimes the haft mewa is scented with rose petal or cardamom, before being served with syrup. In previous years, family members in rural areas would send the dried fruits and nuts to their relatives in the cities, but this year many Afghans have been affected by food shortages, and people are forced to prepare the haft mewa with less than the traditional seven ingredients. 

The city of مزارِ شریف Mazar-i-Sharif is famous throughout Afghanistan during the Nowruz period for its میلۀ گلِ سرخ mila-i gul-i surkh ‘red tulip festival’, where many people would gather around Mazar-i-Sharif city to witness the blooming of the beautiful red tulips. The Balkh region, where Mazar-i-Sharif is located, is the spiritual homeland of Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian faith, so it is fitting that a celebration which has its roots in Zoroastrianism is celebrated extensively throughout this region of Afghanistan.

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