In harmony with the rebirth of nature, the two-week Persian New Year celebration, or Nowruz, always begins on the first day of spring.  President Obama recently made important remarks on Nowruz:  On that day-which may occur on March 20, 21, or 22 – Nowruz celebrations include many traditions and wonderful foods:
Nowruz ceremonies consist of a series of symbolic actions dating back to ancient times, including:

  • Cleaning of the environment, cleansing of the self, confession of sins, the exorcising of devils, or divs, from the house and the community.
  • Forgive yourself and your enemies and a time for making up relationships.
  • Dowsing and re-lighting the fires.
  • Processions to borders, seas, and rivers.
  • Disruption of the normal order of things with boisterous parties.

A few weeks before the New Year, Iranians thoroughly clean and rearrange their homes. They make or buy new clothes, bake pastries and germinate seeds as signs of renewal. Troubadours, called Hadji Firuz or heralds of rebirth, disguised with makeup and wearing red satin outfits, sing and dance through the streets with tambourines, kettle drums, and trumpets to spread good cheer and the news of the coming New Year. The celebration of renewal is attributed to the Sumerian god of sacrifice, Domuzi, who was killed at the end of each year and reborn at the beginning of the new year. The Hadji Firuz‘s disguised face represents his return from the world of the dead, his red costume symbolizes the blood and tragic fate of the legendary Prince Siavush and the rebirth of the god of sacrifice, while his happiness and singing represent his joy at being reborn.

In every Persian household a special cover is spread onto a carpet or on a table. This ceremonial setting is called sofreh-ye haft-sinn (literally “seven dishes’ setting,” each one beginning with the Persian letter sinn). The number seven has been sacred in Iran since antiquity, and the seven dishes stand for the seven angelic heralds of life-rebirth, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, patience, and beauty. The symbolic dishes consist of sabzeh, or sprouts, usually wheat or lentil, representing rebirth. Samanu is a pudding in which common wheat sprouts are transformed and given new life as a sweet, creamy pudding, and represents the ultimate sophistication of Persian cooking. Sib means apple and represents health and beauty. Senjed, the sweet, dry fruit of the wild olive, represents love. It has been said that when the wild olive is in full bloom, its fragrance and its fruit make people fall in love and become oblivious to all else. Seer, which is garlic in Persian, represents medicine. Somaq, sumac berries, represent the color of sunrise; with the appearance of the sun Good conquers Evil. Serkeh, or vinegar, represents age and patience.

To reconfirm the hopes and wishes expressed by the traditional foods, other elements and symbols are also placed on the sofreh. Books of tradition and wisdom are laid out: usually a copy of the holy Koran; and/or a divan of the poems of Hafez. A few coins, representing wealth, and a basket of painted eggs, representing fertility, are also placed on the sofreh. A Seville orange floating in a bowl of water represents the earth floating in space, and a goldfish in a bowl of water represents Anahita, one of the angels of water and fertitily, which is the main purpose of the nowruz celebration. The fish also represents life and the end of the astral year associated with the constellation Pisces. A flask of rose water, known for its magical cleansing power, is also included on the sofreh. A bowl of fresh milk, representing nourishment for the children of the world. Pussy willow branches, pomegrantes, figs, and olives, representing time. Nearby is a brazier for burning wild rue, a sacred herb whose smoldering fumes are said to ward off evil spirits. A pot of flowering hyacinth or narcissus is also set on the sofreh. On either side of a mirror are two candelabra holding a flickering candle for each child in the family. The candles represent enlightenment and happiness. The mirror represents the images and reflections of Creation as we celebrate anew the ancient Persian traditions and beliefs that creation took place on the first day of spring, or Nowruz.

On the same table many people place seven special sweets because, according to a three-thousand-year-old legend, King Jamshid discovered sugar on Nowruz (the word candy comes from the Persian word for sugar, qand). These seven sweets are noghls (sugar-coated almonds); Persian baklava, a sweet, flaky pastry filled with chopped almonds and pistachios soaked in honey-flavored rose water; nan-e berenji (rice cookies), made of rice flour flavored with cardamom and garnished with poppy seeds; nan-e badami (almond cookies), made of almond flour flavored with cardamom and rose water; nan-e nokhodchi (chick-pea cookies), made of chick-pea flour flavored with cardamom and garnished with pistachios; sohan asali (honey almonds), cooked with honey and saffron and garnished with pistachios; and nan-e gerdui (walnut cookies), made of walnut flour flavored with cardamom and garnished with pistachio slivers.

On the eve of the last Wednesday of the year (Shab-e chahar shanbeh sury, literally “the eve of Red Wednesday” or “the eve of celebration”), bonfires are lit in public places and people leap over the flames, shouting, “Sorkhi-e to az man o zardi-e man az to!” (Give me your beautiful red color and take back my sickly pallor!). With the help of fire and light, symbols of good, celebrants pass through this unlucky night-the End of the Year-and into the arrival of spring’s longer days. Tradition holds that the living are visited by the spirits of their ancestors on the last days of the year. Many people, especially children, wrap themselves in shrouds to symbolically reenact the visits. By the light of the bonfire, they run through the streets, banging on pots and pans with spoons and knocking on doors to ask for treats. This ritual is called qashogh-zany and reenacts the beating out of the last unlucky Wednesday of the year. In order to make wishes come true, it is customary to prepare special foods and distribute them on this night: Ash-e reshteh-ye nazri (Noodle Soup); a filled Persian delight, Baslogh, and special snacks called ajil-e chahar shanbeh soury and ajil-e moshkel gosha. The last, literally meaning unraveler of difficulties, is made by mixing seven dried nuts and fruits-pistachios, roasted chick-peas, almonds, hazelnuts, peaches, apricots, and raisins.

A few hours prior to the transition to the New Year, family and friends sit around the sofreh-ye haft-sinn. Everyone sings traditional songs, and poems of Hafez and verses from the Koran are recited. I remember an amusing story about my aunt. She would always carry a tattered divan of the poems of Hafez and, just prior to the Tahvil, while we were all sitting around the sofreh, she would ask each of us to make a wish so that she could ask Hafez about our fortune. Then she would lay the closed book, spine down, on the palm of her left hand while she passed her right index finger several times up and down the page edges. With her eyes closed she would ask out loud:

Ay Hafez-e Shirazi to ke mahram-e har razy! To ra be Shakh-e Nabatat qassam. . .

Oh Hafez of Shiraz, knower of all secrets, by the love of your sweetheart, Shakh-e Nabat . . .

She would continue with the rest of her questions in silence and finally she would open the book by placing her fingernail randomly into the pages. With the first glance at the verses on the page, she would cry out, bah- bah! wonderful, wonderful, how beautiful! She would go on like this for a good minute or two while we sat round-eyed and impatient, waiting to know our fortunes. At last she would begin the first verse of the poem:

Exactly at the moment of the equinox, my father would recite a prayer for the transition, wishing for a good life, and we would all repeat after him out loud.

Then traditionally the oldest person present begins the well-wishing by standing up and giving out sweets, pastries, coins, and hugs. Calm, happiness, sweetness, and perfumed odors are very important on this day of rebirth, since the mood on this day is said to continue throughout the year. An old saying goes, “Good thought, good word, good deed-to the year end, happy indeed.”

The New Year celebration continues for twelve days after the equinox occurs. Traditionally, during the first few days, it is the younger members of the family who visit their older relatives and friends in order to show their respect. Sweet pastries and delicious frosty drinks are served to visitors, and there is a general air of festivity all around. The children receive gifts, usually crisp new notes of money; in America, dollar bills. In the remaining days, the elders return the visits of the younger members of the family.

According to the ancients, each of the twelve constellations in the zodiac governed one of the months of the year, and each would rule the earth for a thousand years, after which the sky and the earth would collapse into each other. The Nowruz celebrations, therefore, lasted twelve days, plus a thirteenth day (representing the time of chaos) celebrated by going outdoors, putting order aside and having parties. On this thirteenth day, called Sizdeh bedar or outdoor thirteen, entire families leave their homes to carry trays of sprouted seeds in a procession to go picnic in a cool, grassy place. Far from home, they throw the sprouts into the water, which is thought to exorcise the divs and evil eyes from the house and the household. Wishing to get married by the next year, unmarried girls tie blades of grass together. There is much singing, dancing, eating, and drinking. With this, the Nowruz celebrations are completed.

The traditional menu for the Nowruz gathering on the day of the equinox usually includes fish and noodles. It is believed they bring good luck, fertiltiy and prosperity in the year that lies ahead.

  • Noodle Soup – Ash-e reshteh, noodles representing the Gordian knots of life. Eating them symbolically helps toward unraveling life’s knotty problems.
  • Rice with Fresh Herbs and Fish-Sabzi polow ba mahi, fresh herb rice representing rebirth, fish representing Anahita, one of the angels of water and fertility. Or rice with noodles, dates and raisins, or rice with barberries, candied orange peels and carrots.
  • Herb Kuku- Kuku-ye sabzi, the eggs and herbs represent fertility and rebirth.
  • Bread, Cheese, and Fresh Herbs – Nan-o panir-o sabzi khordan, representing prosperity.
  • Wheat Sprout pudding – Samanu, representing fertitlity and rebirth.
  • Sprout Cookies – Kolucheh-ye Javaneh-ye Gandom, representing prosperity and fertility.
  • Ice in Paradise – Yakh dar Behesht, representing nourishment for the children of the world.
  • Saffron Sherbet and Saffron Tea with Rock Candy – Sharbat-e Zaferan va Chai-e Zafaran ba nabat, representing sweetness and light.
  • Baklava, Chick-pea Cookies, and Sugar Coated Almonds – Baqlava, Nan-e Nokhodchi, Noghl, representing prospertiy.

Find recipes on from New Food of Life: Ancient Persian & Modern Iranian Cooking & Ceremonies or Silk Road Cooking: a Vegetarian Journey, copyright Najmieh Batmanglij 1986-2004. Courtesy of Mage Publishers, 1032 29th St. NW, Washington, DC 20007.

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