By Nesta Ramazani
Nesta Ramazani, author of Persian Cooking and The Dance of the Rose and the Nightingale, has lived in Charlottesville, Virginia since 1952.
Despite the Iranian Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the Iranian people today, as over the past two thousand five hundred years, continue to identify themselves primarily as Persian. Emblematic of this profound self-perception is Nowrooz, the Persian New Year that began on March 20 and is celebrated for the next twelve days.
Cosmically, however, Nowrooz is everyone’s New Year, marking as it does the arrival of the vernal equinox. And internationally, it is celebrated by many people other than the Persians, including the Tajiks, Afghans, Kurds, Azeris, Turkmens, Kazaks, and Kyrgyzs.
In Iran, Nowrooz is observed by all religious and sectarian groups, whether Muslim, Zoroastrian, Christian, or Jewish. And even though the majority of Iranians today are Muslim, and have been ever since the Arab conquest of Iran in the Seventh Century CE, their most important annual holiday is one that celebrates rites and rituals dating back thousands of years and rooted in the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion.
The Islamic regime has tried to trivialize the rituals and customs of Nowrooz and it has failed. As an example, it attempted to ban the celebration of Chaharshambeh Soori, the Iranian festival of fire, that precedes the New Year and takes place on the eve of the last Wednesday of the year.
Chaharshambeh Soori is a celebration of the victory of light (good) over darkness (evil). The symbolism relates to the ancient Zoroastrian belief in the eternal struggle between good and evil and the eventual victory of the good. The tradition involves making large bonfires over which the celebrants leap while chanting a verse which, loosely translated, means: “Take my paleness from me and give me your rosiness.” The fire symbolically burns out all fear in a person’s spirit, in preparation for a new year.
The Nowrooz celebrations last for twelve days, during which time there is much visiting among family members, neighbors and friends and preparations for this annual festival are extensive. They involve spring-cleaning, the purchase of new clothes for all members of the family, and small gifts and monetary bonuses for domestic help or office workers. In addition, provision needs to be made for a plentiful supply of pastries, cookies, fresh and dried fruit, and nuts, to accommodate the many visitors one can expect to come calling.
On the first day of Nowrooz the family usually gathers at the home of the elders of the family, at which time gifts are exchanged. Custom dictates that younger members of the family first pay their respects to their elders. Each visit is then reciprocated. As cities like Tehran have grown, and distances between relatives’ homes have grown far more extensive, such visiting back and forth has become more difficult. So some Iranians will now throw large No Rooz parties in a central location as a way of dealing with this problem.
Central to the tradition of Nowrooz is the setting up of a haft-seen table, the table containing seven items that begin with the Persian letter S. The items symbolically correspond to the seven creations in the Zoroastrian tradition, namely Fire, Earth, Water, Air, Plants, Animals, and Humans. The seven S items placed on the haft-seen table are: sabzeh , (sprouted wheat, barley, or lentils, symbolizing rebirth); samanoo, (a sweet pudding made of wheat germ, symbolizing affluence); senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree, symbolizing love); seer, (garlic, symbolizing medicine); seeb, (apples, symbolizing beauty and health); somagh, (sumac, symbolizing the color of sunrise); and serkeh, (vinegar, symbolizing age and patience). Other items usually placed on the table are a mirror, candles, decorated eggs, a goldfish in a bowl, a hyacinth, some coins, a copy of the poems of Hafez (14th century Persian lyric poet) and a holy book, that is to say, a Koran if the family is Muslim, an Avesta if Zoroastrian, a Bible if Christian, or a Torah if Jewish. Families spare no effort to make the haft-seen table as beautiful as possible.
On the thirteenth day of the Nowrooz celebrations the festivities come to an end and everyone goes outdoors on a picnic, taking the sabzeh, the sprouted greens, to toss them into a running stream. This ensures good luck for the rest of the year.
To all those readers who are celebrating Nowrooz, I say, “Ayd-e Shoma Mobarak.” (“Happy New Year to You.”)
The Dance of the Rose and the Nightingale
by Nesta Ramazani (2002)
Persian Cooking : A Table of Exotic Delights
by Nesta Ramazani (1997)
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