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How Iranians Celebrate Persian New Year In COVID Times

03/19/21

By Afshin Majlesi, Tehran Times

It is for the second consecutive year that the novel coronavirus keeps families apart on eve of the Iranian New Year. This Norooz (pronounced NO-rooz), or "new day" in Persian, starting on Saturday, ushers in the Iranian year 1400. The ancient celebration of the vernal equinox marks the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere; the moment when the length of day and night are almost equal.


Norooz is always a time of joy. One of the reasons it is so joyful is because people get together, not only family but also neighbors. The street celebrations bring together people who often do not even know each other. This is supposed to be one of the busiest times of the year when people get together and visit their families. And many of the Norooz traditions take place on the streets.

However, last night, for example, was a time when people traditionally jumped over bonfires in hope of good health in the year to come. This year, as traditions are transformed by the coronavirus, many people limited their gatherings last night. They set up candles in their homes or their backyards and they jumped over the candles. It was just with their families, instead of having large parties.

Furthermore, in normal years, millions of Iranians travel to tourist places or some relatives' homes around the country during the nearly two weeks period of the holiday when most businesses and workplaces are closed, as are schools.

Earlier this month, President Hassan Rouhani declared new travel bans for cities situated in the "red" and "orange" zones to combat the new COVID-19 variant. Rouhani called on people to avoid traveling during the Iranian New Year holidays to help contain the spread of coronavirus. He said it would be forbidden to make trips to cities marked as "red" and "orange" in terms of the prevalence of COVID-19. "We request people to avoid traveling during Norooz holidays for the sake of their own health... It will be forbidden to travel to red and orange towns and cities," he said. "No one should make any plans to travel to these cities," he stressed.

Late in February, the tourism minister, Ali-Asghar Mounesan, said despite all the obstacles and issues and the outbreak of the coronavirus, the country's tourism sector is still alive and dynamic. Norooz ceremonies and trips, if practiced under health protocols, could be beneficial for the revival of the tourism industry and handicrafts, which have been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic in many provinces, the minister explained.

According to official data, over 60,300 people have died from the virus across the country since the start of the pandemic a year ago. More than 1,750,000 cases have been reported.

So that is clear that the disease has overshadowed preparations this year in a country severely hit by the outbreak. A lot of people have tried to replace physical connection with virtual connection. They read poetry to each other over voice messages. They send their friends and family poems or even recipes. There are various ways that people are trying to communicate with each other using technology.

As the spring beckons and the lilies and daffodils begin to bloom, impatient Iranians start adorning their homes with colorful decorations. It is another reminder that Norooz is just around the corner. Norooz celebrations last 13 days, beginning with the first day of spring and culminating with a picnic, but preparations begin well in advance. It is the longest, oldest, and most cherished festival in the Persian calendar. It marks nature's resurrection from the long winter. Homes are cleaned, tables are symbolically rearranged. It's part of a string of customs to herald the spring and celebrate rebirth.

Norooz begins with 'Saal Tahvil', which can be translated as year delivery. It falls at the exact moment of the spring equinox. Everybody in the family, dressed up in their new clothes, gathers around the Haft Sin spread looking forward to 'Saal Tahvil'. As the countdown ushers in the New Year, the members of the family cheer up, hug and kiss each other, and exchange Norooz greetings, 'Eid-e Shoma mobarak!' or 'Sal-e No Mobarak' (Happy New Year). Now everyone, especially the children, move on to make the rounds of the elders of the family first, then the rest of their family and finally their friends and the rest of the neighborhood. Adults, too, have a set schedule of visits and receiving visitors. This custom demonstrates the respect that Iranians pay to the elderly. Visits are short, typically taking about 30 minutes.

During Norooz, everyone gathers around a Haft Seen, a table spread with seven items, including sprouts, which symbolize rebirth, and apples, which represent health and beauty. Sofreh Haft Seen, the traditional Norooz (Iranian new year) tablescape, or cloth, decorated with seven symbolic items starting with the Persian letter S (pronounced as "seen"). The light briefly spotlights each item and reflects off the sugar-dusted toot - mulberry-shaped Iranian marzipan - providing a display of kaleidoscopic patterns and lights.

The seven items on the Sofreh Haft Seen include sabzeh (wheat, lentil or mung bean sprouts), samanu (a sweet pudding made with germinated wheat), seeb (apple), senjed (the dried fruit of the wild olive, oleaster), somagh (sumak), serkeh (vinegar) and seer (garlic).

Various pastries are placed on the table as a symbol of sweetening the year to come. Common ingredients include flower waters and warm spices like cardamom, almonds and pistachios (used both whole and ground to a powder), chickpea flour, rice flour, and, of course, plenty of sugar. (Blanched ground almonds are also the main ingredient in toot, which means mulberry in Persian.) Sweets that carry with them all the love, care, and hopes for a sweeter new year.

Many Iranian have started khooneh takooni (also known as khaneh takani), which translates to "shaking out the house," referring to the tradition of cleaning and cleansing the home in preparation for the new year. Once all the windows are washed, rugs are beaten and cabinets are cleared and reorganized, the ritual of baking Norooz pastries begins.

Norooz's characteristic herald, the old tambourine man, Hajji Firuz, with his black-painted face and a red regalia, goes out in the cities and villages spreading delight among the public. He is a messenger of health, power, happiness, and abundance for the New Year. He has a trumpet and tambourine and a traditional song: 'Hajji Firuz-e, Saali Ye Ruz-e', which means 'It is Hajji Firuz, coming only once a year'. Along with his troupe of musicians, he strolls on the streets and alleyways entertaining people.

One other preparation to welcome Norooz is called 'Kharid-e Noroozi'. It involves buying new clothes, sweets, flowers - particularly hyacinths and tulips - and the articles of 'Haft Seen.' A book, preferably a religious one, an upright mirror, burning candles, colored eggs, an orange floating in water, a goldfish swimming in a bowl, Iranian sweetmeats, confectioneries, fruits, traditional Iranian pastries such as baghlava, 'aajeel' (dried nuts, berries and raisins) which is another important component of the whole Norooz festival, and the national colors of Iran. Norooz has its own particular dishes, too. 'Sabzi-Polo Mahi', rice with green herbs and fish, is served on the night just preceding Norooz, or on the day of Norooz.

'Eidi', new-year gift, is another characteristic feature of Norooz. Within the family, the head of the household must grant the Eidi to the members of the family. It is to be mentioned that the young visitors do not bring any gifs with them, and may only receive a gift. The rounds of visitations might last as long as twelve days, up to the day of 'Sizdah Bedar'.

Family members may play music, pour fragrant drops of rose water into one another's palms, or have a bite of sweets to usher in the holiday with all of their senses. Then comes the feast - lunch or dinner, depending on what time the equinox falls - followed by 11 days of herb-laden meals and teatime sweets. On the final day, it's traditional to retreat outdoors for a day of picnicking. Among all Persian ancient ceremonies, Norooz with its different aspects in every region of the country is a peerless festival. It repeats and renews, generates and revives, and influences the Iranian creative soul.



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