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Norooz, the Persian New Year at the spring vernal equinox


Davood N. Rahni, New York

Norooz: 00:30:12 A.M. Sunday March 20, 2016 in New York

The flower buds of yellow, violet, red and white crocuses of saffron bulbs, intermingled with the blossoming daffodils, hyacinths, tulips and the Persian violets, herald the arrival of Norooz. The Persian New Year, signaling the rebirth, rejuvenation and reconciliations, rightly occurring on the spring vernal equinox. Spring in Iran and its wider region is the harbinger of jubilation with the flowing pristine streams percolating down the snowcapped mountains, the greening of the prairies and pastures, the flowering of fruit trees, and the germinating of staple crops. Hence, it is surmised that the Norooz celebration must have been observed at one level or the other since the inception of agriculture on Iranian Plateau stretching between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia, the Caucuses, and Central Asia since at least 10,000 years ago when agriculture and domesticating animals commenced. This is reflected in the mythological story of King Jamshid the first Norooz celebrant, in (Paradisso) Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the Epic 30,000 Poem Book of the Persian Kings. Paradise, he has eternally been since.

Norooz aka Nowruz or NowRooz in Persian literally means the first day [of the New Year]. It is the most prominent seasonal celebration of the solar calendars. It was conceived by the agricultural people north of the Tropic of Cancer who have revered the sun (Sol Invictus), fire and light ever since. This contrasts with lunar calendars as followed by the southern and western neighbors of Iran. In addition to Iran, Norooz as a national holiday transcending class, color, creed, ethnicity, race, religion, or national origin, is currently commemorated by well over a dozen countries of nearly five hundred million inhabitants in central, south and west Asia, northwestern China, Asia Minor, and the Caucuses.

In fact, the commoners and serfs in Europe and later by the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock also observed a New Year beginning in spring though the mid-18th century. Have you ever wondered why the 9th (for September) through the 12th (for December) months of the current Gregorian calendar, Latin derived September through December, are actually the 7th through the 10th months of the year?  Wouldn’t that make January and February the 11th and 12th, thus March the first month according to Julian Calendar, an era in the 1st through the 4th centuries CE when Europe was still under Persian Mithraism influence!

Norooz according to Zoroastrian Mazdayasni calendar is at 3755. Norooz commences with the festival of Chaharshanbe Suriat the last Tuesday night of the year. At this Zoroastrian fire ritual, everyone jumps over fire, singing a Middle Persian poem that translates as:

“O’ sacred Fire, take away my yellow sicknessand give me in return your healthy red color!”

The most symbolic manifestation showcased at Norooz is the sofreh haft-seen. Onto a table covered with an antique hand-woven silk cloth are laid seven plant-derived items whose Persian names begin with the letter “S”: sabzeh- wheat and lentil germinations symbolizing rebirth; senjed- the dried fruit of the oleaster tree symbolizing love; seer-garlic symbolizing medicine; seeb-apples symbolizing beauty and earth; somaqh-sumac berries symbolizing sunrise; samanu- cooked germinated wheat for affluence, and serkeh-vinegar symbolizing ripeness, longevity, and perseverance. A round ticking clock, signifying the passage of time, a fishbowl with two gold fish (added later due to influences from China) signifying companionship and life, decorated eggs for fertility, and a saucer of coins from the five continents to reflect prosperity are also on display. The haft-seen table is completed with daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, a triple green, white, and red flickering candelabra and an ancient book of poems, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh the Persian epic book of the Kings, Rumi’s Mathnawi, DivanHafez, or the Omar Khayyam’s Quatrains, illustrated  by the poem The Nightingale Bemoans...This year is the year of monkey, thus depicted by the three monkeys on the right corner of the haft-seen picture above with gestures, see no evil, hear no evil and thus say no evil.  In the U.S. alone Presidents release annual Norooz best wishes message and in recent years an all-day extravagant Norooz celebration that concludes with Persian music and dance and exquisite Persian food, has been hosted at the White House. The UN has for some time declared the International Day of Norooz.

Everyone reaffirms their commitment to one or more of the following virtues, namely, to volunteerism, altruism, philanthropy, benevolence and above all to advancing humanism as the pinnacles of life. The belief in the golden rule of treating others as you would expect to be treated, on the tripartite pedestal of good thoughts, good words and good deeds conjures up in mind with the acclaimed Persian poem by the 13th century Sa’adi:

All humans are members of one frame,
Since all at first, from the same essence, came.
When by hard fortune one limb is oppressed,
The other members lose their desired rest.
If thou feel’st not for others’ misery,
A human is no name for thee.

A Norooz holiday is concluded at the Sizdah Bedar Picnic, which falls on the 13th day or close to April fool’s Day. Every family spends the full day outdoor in parks, crop fields, or the orchards, when they play, sing, dance, eat and drink. The singles tie knots with grass blades to wish for a life companion, the elders nostalgically compare this Norooz with those elapsed while remembering the deceased with melancholy, and the children in particular, look forward restlessly to many more Norooz celebrations to follow.

Farhang Foundation.
An earlier excerpt of this essay was published in National Geog. Magazine, under D. Rahni Copyright © 2016


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