Nowrouz = New Day

Aid-e-Shoma Mobarak! Today is Nowrouz, a Persian holiday that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. In the Iranian calendar, Nowrouz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year. This year, it occurs on March 20, in line with the vernal equinox. Nowrouz celebrations are characterized by family gatherings, sharing with friends, and expressing hope for the New Year.  Shangri La interpretive guides Farideh Farhi and Azadeh Rezaie Nikou were both born and raised in Iran and agreed to share some of their childhood memories of Nowrouz holidays.

Farideh remembers Khooneh tekooni (literally home shaking) or house cleaning, the setting up of the traditional haft seen table and family visits. “My childhood memories of Nowrouz in Iran are all associated with what I would call a bundle of newness. Nowrouz literally means ‘new day,’ but in practice it also meant making everything new or like new. Glass windows had to become squeaky clean; carpets, drapes, and even walls washed; and everything we wore had to be new at the moment planet earth turned (tahvil), replacing winter with spring. Last but not least, making everything new also entailed renewal of familial and friendship bonds through the highly ritualized practice of did-o-bazdid (meaning visit and re-visit).”

Haft seen table at Shangri La, Nowrouz 2009

Another Nowrouz tradition is the assembly of special items that make up the haft seen table.  The term haft seen means seven seen (a letter similar to ‘S’ in the Persian alphabet). The basic idea is to put on the table seven objects that start with seen. The haft seen items frequently include sabzeh (wheat or lentil sprouts, representing rebirth), samanu (creamy pudding made from wheat germ, regarded as holy and representing affluence), seeb (an apple, representing health and beauty), senjid (dried fruit of the lotus tree, representing love), sir (garlic, regarded as medicinal and representing health), somagh (sumac berries, representing the color of the sun and the victory of good over evil), serkeh (vinegar, representing old age and patience), sonbol (hyacinth plant), sekkeh (coins, representing wealth), aajeel (dried nuts, berries and raisins), lit candles (representing enlightenment and happiness), a mirror (representing cleanness and honesty), decorated eggs (representing fertility), traditional Iranian pastries like baklava, a bowl of water with goldfish, rosewater (said to have magical cleansing powers), national colors (for a patriotic touch) and a holy book or poetry book.

Decorated eggs, bowl with goldfish, and garlic presented on the haft seen table at Shangri La, Nowrouz 2009

“The setting of our haft seen table could only be finalized on the day winter turned to spring,” Farideh explained. “Mother was of course in charge of everything that had to be taken care of in advance, such as growing the sabzeh, which in our home included both wheat and lentil sprouts, and buying of the goldfish. But painting eggs was something everyone did on the last day of the year and so was the actual placing of the special haft seen items on the table.”

Farideh continues, “Mother would wake us up about half an hour before the moment planet earth turned (tahvil), replacing winter with spring. The children would excitedly wear their new clothes and stand in front of the haft seen table and wait for the radio or television to announce the moment of change. Kisses and hugs would follow; brand new unfolded paper money would be taken out of pages of the Quran, which was on the table and handed out to children. If tahvil was during the night, with daybreak there was serious business to attend to. The homes of the oldest members of the family had to be visited on the first day of the New Year. No complaining was allowed on those visits and, in any case, the lure of crisp bills—as well as wonderful sweets—was always there.”

Azadeh recalls baking special sweets, going on picnics and taking a road trip to Isfahan and Shiraz. “Nowrouz has always been very special to me,” she said. “Counting down the days to Nowrouz was a delightful preoccupation of all Persian kids. Right before the end of this festive period of celebrations, the majority of families and friends would get out of their homes and enjoy small and large community picnics all over the nation. At home, and prior to the first day of celebrations, women had to take care of their own preparatory rituals. I remember my mom always had her own way of preparing her little sweets for the occasion. Baklava, honey sweets plus garbanzo, rice, and fruit pastries were all made superbly and delicately, and they were always deliciously fresh.”

Lamp Stand, Iran, c. 1600, cast copper alloy (54.100). Portion of Persian poem inscribed on the base: I remember one night when sleep did not come to my eyes, I heard a moth say to the candle, “I am a lover. If I burn, it is appropriate. Why then do you weep and burn so?” (Sa ̒di, d.1291).

Azadeh also remembers trips to Iran’s cultural capitals. “After the first week of intense family visitations, people would often get out of the house and travel. One year, my parents decided to travel to Shiraz, the birth place of the famous thirteenth-century Persian poet Saadi. My father planned for us to stay in Isfahan, at the midpoint of our trip to Shiraz, for one night to rest and enjoy a theatrical play. A famous Isfahani comedian by the name of Arham e Sadr Arham would present specially crafted plays for his eager audiences, who would come from all over the country to visit Isfahan. My dad had arranged for us to see one of these Arham plays. That night, we watched the play and laughed ourselves to the end.  When we arrived in Shiraz, I realized why people had often called the city poetic and romantic. The city was clean and filled with colorfully organized public flower parks and open Persian gardens. Everywhere we drove I could see people smiling and exchange pleasantries. The city was friendly, lively and inviting. Our stay in such a beautiful city and my brother’s spacious new house were nothing short of heaven itself. For the next few days we cheerfully ate, played, and celebrated Nowrouz in a playground we could only have dreamt of.”

Ali Qapu (1590-1643), Isfahan, Iran. Photograph taken during the Cromwells’ 1938 trip.

The celebration of Nowrouz continues to be a joyous tradition in many parts of the world, including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. We extend our best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowrouz around the world.