Norooz, commemorating the New Year, has been celebrated in Iran, formerly Persia, throughout nearly three millennia of its recorded history. Norooz begins at the vernal equinox, the first day of spring season, a day of rejuvenation and reconciliation, and, reinvigorations and rebirth. Norooz's arrival is symbolized in nature by the sprouting of greens and grains, flowers and trees. The Norooz holidays of today span from Charshanbeh Suri (jumping over the bonfire to absorb its reddish healthy strength, while getting rid of one's yellow unhealthy state of being), on the evening preceding the last Wednesday of the old year, climaxing at Norooz, and concluding with Sizdeh Bedar, the thirteenth day of the New Year. Iranians spend the last day of the holidays at a picnic in the orchards, on the prairies, by the seaside, or in the foothills where they eat and drink, dance and sing, and play and joke. On that day, the single women knot grass together in the hope of marriage before the next Norooz! Integral to Norooz are the visits exchanged and paying tribute to the elders, as well as receiving monetary and other gifts from them.
Norooz has its own culinary dishes and pastries, sweets and desserts that are quite distinct from the rest of the year. Enjoying street performances is commonplace throughout Iran. The Persian Prefix "no-", as in NoRooz, is the equivalent of "new" and "now" in English since both languages are rooted in Indo-European origins. Iran has, by and large, remained quite diverse since antiquity. Norooz, which celebrates the divine creation of Zoroastrian Lord of Wisdom-Ahura Mazda who created the Universe, the Guardian Angels (Forouhars) and the holy fire-is the most cherished of all Iranian festivals. The ancient practice of observing the commencement of the spring season was not necessarily reserved to Iranians (Persians); many neighboring nations have and continue observing it. The indigenous tribes roaming the Persian Plateau during 6,000 years before the Persians arrived, along with the Babylonians of Mesopotamia, who had paid special attention to the role of the lengthening days warmed by Sun for their survival (Sol Invictus).
Today several hundred million people in the south, south central and southwest Asia observe Norooz, or a close variation of it. In fact, Zoroastrianism and, to a lesser extent, other Persian faiths such as Mithraism, Mazdakism and Manichaeism that were in part inspired by Buddhism, later influenced the shaping the three Semitic monotheistic religions. The early Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus in early spring, and epiphany commemorated the arrival of the three Wise Men, the Magi, who were said to be Zoroastrian priests. The New Year in the west, that began in early March and was observed in Europe and North America until the late 18th Century, was called the Common New Year. Today's Christmas is due to Pope Emperor Constantine's moving the birth of Jesus to mask the birth of Indo-Iranian deity Mithra to the winter solstice! Furthermore, the concurrent celebration of Purim , Passover and Easter by the Jews and Christians in tandem with Norooz cannot be construed as coincidental, but rather a common heritage.
Norooz was celebrated in an early Persian mythological dynasty, the Kianis heralded by Jamshid (Shah Jam). The Kiani dynasty is cited with national pride and nostalgic reverence in Shahnameh, the 60,000 poetic verses of the Epic Book of [Persian] Kings, written by Ferdowsi (the Paradisi, the paradise) in the 11th century C.E. The oldest archaeological record of the Norooz celebration comes from the Achaemenid period of over 2,500 years ago, where pictorial illustrations and inscriptions on the grand inner Halls of Persepolis, the Apadana, depict King Darius receiving the ambassadors and emissaries presenting Norooz gifts from his vast empire. The Achaemenid Kings actually gave immunity to a commoner chosen to rule in the Palace for a day at Norooz for the king's self-reflection. This practice later led to wise and dancing artisans in the street who are Haji Pirooz (the victorious pilgrim!), as well the royal tolerance of court jesters in both Iranian and European regal courts.
A major part of the New Year ritual is setting up a special table with seven specific items present, Haft Sin (Haft Chin, hinting at the seven picked crops before Islam, and the seven days of creation). In ancient times each of the items corresponded to one of the seven, sacred living creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. Today some modifications are made, but a few of the original items have kept their symbolism. All seven items start with the letter "S"; this was not the requirement in ancient times. Zoroastrians today do not have the seven "S", but they do have a ritual of growing seven seeds. The ancient Iranians also grew seven seeds as a reminder that this is the seventh feast of the creation, and the new growth symbolized the festival's other aspect, namely, a feast of resurrection and the eternal cycle of life.
Sabzeh, green shoots of wheat, barley, millet, or lentils are planted on flat plates a few days before the New Year arrives. Decorated with colorful red, white and green ribbons, Sabzeh along with hyacinth, tulips and daffodils are displayed with Haft-sin and then thrown into streams the last day of the Norooz holidays, on "Sizdeh bedar", the 13th day after Norooz (It coincides with April fool's day in the west!) A few live gold fish (presumably denoting the origin of life in water) are placed in a bowl. In the old days the fish would be taken to the riverbanks or qanats after the holidays; however, today most children, mesmerized by them, keep them as pets, either in the courtyard pond (Howz) or in an aquarium indoors. Mirrors are placed on the Haft-Sin table, and candles are lit adjacent to it to aid the reflection of light and the scared fire if present, and
Photo by Roya Sedighian
Persian-American Girls Sarah and Tara, with
Amoo Norooz at the Parade in New York
to signify knowledge and wisdom. Mirrors and candelabra were significant artifacts in Zoroastrian symbolic art and architecture, and still are integral components of most Iranian celebrations, especially the wedding ceremony. Mirrors are also used extensively in Iranian mystical literature as well and represent introspection and retrospection. Most Iranian burial shrines and mausoleums are still extensively decorated with highly ordered, complex geometrical mirrors, a popular decorative style since ancient times. Again, light is regarded as sacred by the Zoroastrians, and the effective use of mirrors intensifies the reflection of the light.
In ancient times, wine was always present at the Haft-Sin. Since the Muslim conquest, wine has been replaced by vinegar or at times with honey since alcohol is banned in Islam. The Egg, a universal symbol of fertility, corresponding to Mother Earth, Sepanta Armaiti, and hints at the concept of Faravahar, the highest achievement of human soul. Eggs are hard-boiled and traditionally colored red, green, magenta, scarlet, or yellow, colors favored by Zoroastrians. Recently following the Easter egg tradition, more colors are used and the eggs are elaborately decorated and offered to children as treats. Fresh garlic is used to ward off any bad omen. This is said to be a modern innovation, as there is no evidence that garlic was used in this context in antiquity, but perhaps it may have been one of the seven herbs grown at Norooz. Samanoo, a thick, brownish, malted paste, is present on the table today. It makes for a nutritious meal and could have been part of the feast in ancient times. Coins (symbolizing wealth and prosperity), fruits, special sweets and baked pastries, and a holy book for the believers, are present as well.
The Map of the Achaemenid Persian Empire
The Achaemenians created the first superpower empire in the world, spanning from India to Central Asia, the Caucuses and Asia Minor, and extending deep into North Africa. Although they built four magnificent mega-palaces, a residence for each season, the Persepolis complex (Takhte Jamshid, still standing north of Shiraz in central Iran), was the Grand Palace where the Kings celebrated Norooz and spring. Among the most notable Persian Kings were Cyrus the Great (revered in the Torah as the savior, who reconquered Jerusalem, invited the Jews to return and rebuild it). Cyrus is also credited as having decreed the first universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was followed by Darius, (who dug the first Suez Canal and further bolstered the federal system of many nations, satrapies, and the pony express.), and Xerxes, (whose inscriptions in Asia Minor boasting of his heroic bravery, as reluctantly recorded by the Greek nationalist historian, Herodotus).
The first historical evidence of human settlement in the Iranian plateau dates back to well over 10,000 years ago, as attested by the discoveries of a chess/ backgammon set in Shahreh Sookhteh a.k.a. the Burned City (in the southeastern Zabol region), the two baked fermentation pots (from the northwestern Oroomieh region) currently deposited at the University of Pennsylvania, and Teppe Sialk mounds with seventeen layers of settlements. As a result of the latter discovery, the time of the earliest organized agriculture and domestication of flora and fauna was moved back by nearly 2,000 years to 8,000 B.C.E. to the beginning of the human civilization! The diverse indigenous people in southwest Asia were absorbed into the three major incoming Iranian Aryan tribes of the Medes, Parthians and the Persians, who arrived from central Asia, east of the Caspian Sea, over 3,000 years ago. In fact, the name, Iran, derives from the Indo-European roots of Middle Pahlavi, Âér, which means the land of the Aryans; interestingly, the same root is also found in Ireland as a word.
Americans of Iranian/Persian heritage, recognized among the most educated and affluent immigrant communities with nearly one million celebrate Norooz through parade processions, musical concerts, theatrical and movie performances, street fairs and bazaars, and college and private parties throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Although the commemoration of Norooz may have been somewhat modified over time in order to reflect the changing socio-religious landscape and/or to accommodate the infusion of new rituals from other cultures, it has, nevertheless, remained close to every Iranian heart, and as a result will remain for millennia to come. Norooz further celebrates the inspirational and aspirational commonality of humanity as a whole, irrespective of race, creed, national origin religion, and ethnicity. No one has been more eloquent than Sa'adi, the 13th century Persian poet, whose major poem from his vast two-volume treatise "Golestan" and "Boostan", is immortalized on the entrance arch of the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, as follows:
are all members of one frame,
Since all, at first, from the same essence came;
When by hard fortune one limb is
The other members lose their desired rest;
feel'st not for others' misery,
A human being is no name for thee!
U.S.-Iran Soccer Teams
Further Select Readings:
1. Norooz by Massoumeh Price
2. Davood Rahni on Norooz in National Geographic Magazine
3. THE PERSIANS: An Annotated Archaeological and Anthropological Anthology; Persian Heritage Magazine V.9 (2) 2004
4. Persian Gulf
5. An Interview with D. Rahni, on Iran, past and present and Iranian-American Community, by Johanna Sterbin,
6. Encyclopedia Iranica (www.iranica.com)
Acknowledgment: The input by Johanna Sterbin is most appreciated.
Photo by Frank Contreras
David N. Rahni (www.DrRahni.com) is a professor of Chemistry at Pace University, where he has also held adjunct professorships in Environmental Law, and in Dermatology at the New York Medical College. In addition to being a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in Denmark he has also served as a visiting professor in various universities, including Oxford, Rome, Florence, and Teheran. His scholarly prolific contributions, approaching 1,000 broadly speaking, have spanned across chemistry, environmental science and law, forensics, nano-engineering, neuropsychopharmacology, civic activism, history and immigration assimilations. His life-long passion, to help advance the aspirations of Iranian-Americans and other immigrants, is well recognized. Humana Press has published his latest book Bioimaging in Neurodegenerations. His forthcoming book, NATANZ TO NEW YORK: The Odyssey of an Ordinary Persian will soon publish.
 * Whereas there is no universally adopted spelling for Norooz in English, the following spelling permutations are arranged with the decreasing usage in the thousands (K) on the Internet: Noruz (93K), Norooz (85K), Norouz (80K), Nowruz (70K), Nowrouz (15K), & others combined (<3K).
 Copyright © D.Rahni, Ph.D. Prior Permission Required. New York March 2008.
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