When I was growing up, Norooz—the Persian New Year—meant a lot more to me than just the passing of the vernal equinox and the beginning of spring.
Though it marks the first day of the month of Farvardin in the Iranian calendar (in New York this year, it falls at 12:30 A.M. on March 20—the exact time the sun crosses the equator going from south to north), it’s celebrated by people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Georgia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and as far as China and Russia. Though some say it's of Zoroastrian origin, many regard it as a secular holiday.
In my Iranian-American diaspora community, Norooz evoked fresh beginnings and connected me and my playmates to a distant place our parents had left behind. The scents and memories of Norooz were distinct: smelling the hyacinth (sombol) wafting through the house, picking out goldfish at the market, leaping over bonfires, buying new clothes, cleaning for spring. These traditions are, to me, what makes Norooz so special.
In anticipation of the New Year, Iranians set out a ceremonial table setting called a Haft Seen, which is composed of seven items beginning with the Persian letter “sin” or “s.” The traditional objects are laid out on a sofreh (a dining cloth) across a floor or table, each symbolizing a different element. There is sabzeh (wheat or barley) to symbolize rebirth; samanu (sweet pudding) as a mark of affluence; senjed (oleaster) as a symbol of love; sir (garlic) to represent medicine; sib (apple) to symbolize health; somaq (sumac) to mark patience; and serkeh (vinegar) to symbolize satisfaction.
Other items on the table include mirrors or candlesticks (to bring light), a holy book (usually a book of poetry by Hafez, the Persian epic poem Shahnameh, or the Quran), painted eggs, goldfish (marking new beginnings), gold coins (for wealth), hyacinth (a symbol of spring), and other objects that a family holds dear.
In Iran, schools and offices shutter for around two weeks in anticipation of the New Year. The festivities begin on the Wednesday before the equinox, which is known as Chaharshanbe Suri. Loosely translated to “Red Wednesday,” this day is the prelude to the forthcoming New Year; in the evening, small bonfires are lit in the streets and people take turns leaping over the flames, chanting: “zardiye man az to, sorkhiye to az man” ("I give my pallor, sickness, and woes to the fire, and from the flames, take warmth and energy").
Chaharshanbe Suri builds anticipation for the day of Norooz itself, when families travel from home to home, visiting each other and spreading warm wishes and blessings over cups of hot Persian tea and plates of sweets.
Thirteen days later comes the festival of Sizdahbedar, a day devoted to enjoying nature and the outdoors. While I loved the spring cleaning, the giving of eidee (New Year’s money!) from elders to youth, and the tradition of buying new clothes, the highlight of my holiday was celebrating the coming of spring by being outside with family. I grew up looking forward to spending the day in the park, playing soccer with friends and sharing platefuls of fragrant rice and the other dishes that everyone brought to share.
There is no shortage of delicious New Year’s food to enjoy throughout Norooz: Popular menu items in Iranian homes include aashe reshteh, a stew with long noodles to symbolize a long life, and sabzi polo ba mahi, an herb-laden rice dish with fish.
To me, the beauty of Norooz is in how each family celebrates in their own way. My friend Sameera’s favorite part of Norooz is holding sekkeh (gold coins) and eating shirini (sweets) to represent wealth and sweet beginnings as the sun crosses the equator and the clock strikes the New Year. Another friend, Sepanta, celebrates Norooz with haft goosht (or seven meats), which began as a celebration of what his family could hunt on their land and turned into a celebration of the tradition itself, even though the meat is nowadays bought at the supermarket.
My own favorite tradition? Getting very full with friends and family, and celebrating the promise and fresh beginnings of a brand new year.