Persian culture is really interesting because of two things. It’s really, really ancient (like, more than three thousand years old!), and many other cultures contributed to its richness over the course of history. This is no wonder because Iran has always welcomed people from all cultures. In this article, we’re going to talk about Persian customs and traditions. You can see this as a brief Iran travel guide before you actually start your travel.
Marriage traditions are unique to each and every culture around the world and Iran is no exception. Iranian marriage traditions go back more than two millennia. But like all the other parts of the world, everything starts with a proposal!
In Persian customs and traditions, the marriage proposal is not a personal performance where you can just go on your knees and ask for your beloved’s hand. It has become like this in the past few years because Iran is slowly undergoing some cultural change, but for a long, long time, it wasn’t the case. It all starts with families meeting. Almost always the boy’s parents will go to the girl’s parents’ to get acquainted. This gathering of the families is known as Khastegari (marriage proposal) in Persian. If things go well, and the two parties (parents) give their consent to the marriage, the happy couple goes to the next stage. The next official stage is called Aghd (Wedlock). However, between Khastegari and Aghd, there are a few unofficial traditions that vary among families.
Wedlock is the official registration of the marriage. As it is the case in many countries, marriage has a two-fold registration in Iran. The first one is a religious registration which is a ceremonial act performed by a member of the clergy. The other one is a registration for the state. The two are usually performed at the same time. In Iran, these two are equally important. After the first one, however, the happy couple can start living together. But the second one is needed to keep on with all the legal procedures.
Wedlock (Aghd) is usually performed in the form of a celebration. In Persian customs and traditions, an inseparable part of this celebration is the table of the wedding (Sofreh Aghd), which is somehow similar to the centerpiece in western weddings. On this table, there are several items, all of which with cultural and/or religious significance. The most import one of these items is a mirror and a pair of candlesticks.
Before getting into why mirrors and candlesticks are so important in the wedlock ceremony, let’s talk a bit about the significance of fire and water in Persian culture. Fire is the most ancient significant symbol of Persian culture. It is a sacred element in the Zoroastrian religion. In fact, it is the most significant symbol among Zoroastrians. Fire symbolizes the vitality of life and the everlasting battle of the Good and Evil. The fire also symbolizes eternity and the dominance of God over Evil in the end, for light penetrates the darkness and eliminates it.
Water is no less significant in Persian culture. It symbolizes light, hope, and the passage of life. In water, there is always the reflection of nature, the reflection of life. Water is, in fact, the mirror of nature.
A mirror on the wedlock table with two candlesticks on either side communicates so many meanings. The groom and the bride can see themselves with their families around them in the mirror, which makes their hearts happy and full of hope. The mirror is now acting like water. Fire on the sides represents the force of life, the strength to overcome darkness, and the hope to which they stick along their journey.
There is also a bowl of honey on the table. The couple put a little honey in each other’s mouths (usually with their fingers) to start their life with sweetness in their mouth, for they know the bitterness of the hardships await behind the turns of the road.
Hanna Bandan is the ceremony which is held on the last night before the bride goes to her own house. Hana Bandan, among Persian customs and traditions, is somehow like a bachelorette party which is held in the bride’s parents’ house. During the ceremony, a little henna is put on the bride’s hands (and sometimes, the groom’s, too). Ancient Persian people believed henna was from heaven. It represents happiness and good luck in Persian culture.
Virginity before marriage is very important to Iranian people because Iran is a strictly religious country. However, it’s becoming less and less insignificant among the youth of the new generation. The Persian customs and traditions related to virginity are also vanishing.
– Gifts before the wedlock for the bride
The groom and his parents give the bride a number of gifts before and during the wedlock ceremony. These gifts are mostly pieces of gold and jewelry. Money is also another gift, but it is less common compared with jewelry.
Taarof is a common practice among Persian people and Persian customs and traditions. It is really difficult to find an English word that could be exactly equivalent to Taarof. Persian people believe that directness and frankness in many situations might be rude. So, they try to avoid being rude by being superficially nice to each other. This includes long greetings and goodbyes which sometimes take up to five minutes!
Another case is when you want to give people something they really need, but they avoid getting it just to be nice. Most of the time they would get it from you after a long-winded speech filled with nice nos and words of gratitude. On the other hand, they go through a lot of trouble to give you something that you might not even need. A very frequent example is offering a place to stay or offering a ride.
Most of the time, Taarof gets Persian people into trouble, but it is not a negative custom. Persian people are famous for being kind, hospitable, and welcoming. Taarof is part of this, but sometimes when foreigners face with them in their Iran tour package confuse it with things other than kindness. Like when they insist on giving you a ride, particularly when you’re a lady.
It is very important to know that not performing Taarof is considered to be rude. But Iranians realize that foreigners don’t know how to perform or understand Taarof, so it usually becomes a matter of fun rather than rudeness. Next time in Iran, make sure you don’t miss it when they are performing Taarof. It gives you a very good insight into the Persian mind and culture.
Bargaining is another unique part of Persian customs and traditions. Iranians, in fact, would hold the international championship of bargaining if there were such a thing. They always try to find the thing they want at the lowest price. And this includes even the goods at a fixed price, such as everyday stuff at the supermarkets!
This is because of the joy and pleasure they find in shopping, not because they are cheap people. In fact, they almost always pay what they should pay, but they enjoy exchanging funny words such as “you’re ripping me off,” or “I could have bought these fakes at a much lower price”. These are jokes, of course, and mean nothing. Over the course of recent years, tourists also engage in bargaining just for the fun of it.
As mentioned before, water holds a significant place in Persian culture. It is common practice that when someone leaves a place to travel, a friend or a family member throws water behind them to wish them an easy journey. In other words, water symbolizes the light that shines on the travelers’ way so that they arrive at their destination safe and sound.
Most of the Iranian people do not enter a house with their shoes on. Home is considered a sacred place, so it is disrespectful to set foot in someone’s house with your shoes on. Nowadays, this is more a matter of keeping the house clean rather than keeping the sanctity of the house untouched. But in the past, the dirt on your shoes would represent an ill omen. Now we should turn to the Persian carpet to gain a better insight.
Iranian carpet is globally famous and has a rich history. On most of the Iranian carpets, there are intertwined, beautiful patterns of flowers and trees. These patterns, particularly the ones that are manually woven into the carpet, are really intricate. There are other patterns, too. Scenes of mythological stories, folklore, religious legends, and symbolic figures. The general idea is to symbolize heaven, a world of peace, quiet, and jubilation. Persian culture regards the home as a sacred place. This sanctity is mostly represented in the Iranian carpet. The Persian carpet is also very expensive. Iranians keep their carpets with maximum care. That’s probably one reason why you should not get into someone’s house with your shoes on!
It is interesting to know that different regions in Iran have different types of carpet that you can bring them with your self as a souvenir of Iran. Yazd, Isfahan, Kashan, Qom, and Mashhad are among the cities famous for their unique carpets. The uniqueness comes in two forms: the design patterns and the material that carpet-weavers use. Carpets are made in either factory or by hand. The manually-woven carpets could be up to four or five times more expensive, and they are brilliant works of art.
A collection of historically valuable carpets is kept in the carpet museum in Tehran. You can visit the museum to learn a lot about the Persian carpet, and get lost in the beauty of the pieces there. Iranian tour packages usually include a visit to this museum.
Votive offerings (Nazri) are part of Persian culture. They go back in history and beyond the arrival of Islam in Iran. But with the dominance of Islam, as the main religion, this tradition underwent significant changes.
The Persians make vows (to God) when they face difficult situations. When they achieve what they want, they fulfill the vow by giving away the votive. The votive could be a very small thing such as lighting, a candle in a holy place, or a huge item such as helping thousands of poor children to go to school. It doesn’t matter what you promise to do. What matters is to fulfill that vow.
There are thousands of books and articles on Nazri. Islamic scholars encourage people to do it because it makes people better in character. Over the course of history, Nazri has come to find its place in the Persian lifestyle, and it’s not limited to people with religious beliefs.
In many ways, charities look like Nazri. There is a slight difference, though. In Kheirat, there is no promise. People are just sending “good vibes” to the Other World. The Persians believed that the dead cannot do anything to make their lives better in the Other World. The best thing for a dead person is to be remembered by the living.
So, when someone dies, on different occasions (and regularly on Thursdays), his/her family members or friends or anyone who knew them might give out food, drinks, or (mostly) confectionary. In this way, the dead person knows he/she is remembered and feels happy and relieved.
Kheirat is not limited to food. Many decide to do something bigger so that the “goodness” of the deed reaches the dead person in the Other World. So, it could range from offering free services (a ride, teaching something to people, fixing their stuff, etc.) to building places (housing for the poor, schools, hospitals, etc.).
The Persians give gifts to each other on many occasions. In fact, giving gifts in Iran is very common and you will receive several gifts in a year. Here are a few significant occasions:
A housewarming gift is very common among the Persians. It is common that, according to Persian customs and traditions, when you buy or rent a new house, everybody brings you a gift. These gifts are usually the stuff you might need at home, such as kitchen utensils, bedroom stuff, or even a small item like a mug.
Upon getting married, couples receive large amounts of gifts. Now you know that Persian marriage has several stages. In nearly all of them, people give you gifts. The gifts might slightly vary from stage to stage, and some gifts are even compulsory to give. But it’s mostly money or jewelry.
When a baby is born, the Persian gives the parents lots of gifts. These gifts are almost anything that the child may need up to the age of two. Money is also a very common gift on this occasion. But it’s mostly toys and clothing items that matter.
Greetings are kind and also funny in Iran. The Persians usually spend a long time just saying hello and asking after their family or friends. Goodbyes are even cooler. They contain long conversations and scattered pieces of “Taarof”. This can frustrate you if you are not familiar with it in advance. It is generally rude not to say goodbye when you leave a place, and if greetings are brisk (like in Western cultures), the Persian think you might be upset about something.
Iranian food is widely known around the world. The Persians prefer to get together to eat. Dining is a collective activity, and a time to have warm conversations with your family and guests. When the Persian wants to invite guests over, it’s usually for dinnertime. It is common practice to bring confectionery or fruit when you go to someone’s house for dinner. Wine and other alcoholic drinks are not legal in Iran. It is also not common in Iran to bring drinks for people when you are invited to their house.
Ceremonies and celebrations fall under two categories in Iran. They are either ancient or religious. In any case, there are unique Persian customs and traditions revolving around important days. Here we take a brief look at some of them.
The first night of winter is considered to be the longest and darkest night of the year. Iranian people gather together in family parties and spend the night eating fruit and reading Hafez’s poems. The ancient Iranian ceremony included wine, too. Watermelons and pomegranates are the main fruit that is served in Yalda night. The red color is dominant to represent the vital force of life on the threshold of the season of death.
The last Wednesday of the year is Chahshanbe Suri in Iran. On the threshold of the new year, the Persian celebrate the last hours of the long year through fireworks and parties. The fireworks are again symbolic of the dominance of light over darkness, a theme central to the Persian belief system.
Nowruz is the first day of the Persian calendar and the first day of spring. Iranian people go to visit their relatives and give gifts to each other on this day. This national holiday lasts for 13 days, and most people go to see the beautiful natural places of the north to enjoy the coming of spring.
The last day of Nowruz is the Iranian nature day, also named Sizdah Bedar, which roughly means “getting rid of the thirteen”. Number thirteen is considered to bring bad luck to Persian traditions. People traditionally believed that you should not spend this day at home. So, families and friends gather together in nature to run away from bad luck and celebrate the national nature day.
Tirgan is a midsummer festival held on 13 Tir. During the festival, people splash water and eat traditional foods. The water here symbolizes light and hope. Dancing and partying are also part of the festival. Tirgan is mostly celebrated in Shiraz, but it is common in other cities, too.
Mehregan is the Persian autumn festival. It is celebrated on October 9th to honor friendship, love, and affection.
Sadeh (the hundred days and nights) is the fire festival that is celebrated 50 days before Nowruz. The reason is that 100 days and nights are left to the beginning of the next year. In this festival of fireworks, the main theme is hope and the dominance of light over darkness.
Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, was the first Persian prophet who was born somewhere in 600 to 1200 BCE. He was the founder of Zoroastrianism and the writer of Avesta. Zoroastrian people celebrate his birthday on the day they assume he was born, 6 Farvardin (26 March). These celebrations are very common in Yazd, and the fire is honored throughout these celebrations.
Iran is a religious country and the majority of Iranians are Muslims. More importantly, the majority of Iranian Muslims are Shi’a, which means they follow certain traditions within Islam. It is no wonder then that religious ceremonies have a significant role among Persian customs and traditions. Let’s take a look at some of the most important ones.
Ashura is the 10th day of Muharram. The word itself means the 10th day. To the Shi’a Muslim, this day is highly important. On this day, the third Shi’a Imam and 72 others, all his followers, were killed in an unfair battle against an army of 3000. After a long day’s battle which led to a tragic ending, the enemy took their households captive, and a long series defining moments in Shi’a history started to happen.
The story itself is long and highly disputed among historians, but the essence of the story remains the same: Ashura marks a remarkable moment of innocence in history. Imam’s idealistic rise against what was wrong and dark has occupied a mythological place in the Shi’a’s mind and soul. Iranian people, along with Shi’as of other countries, honor this day by performing mourning sessions around the world.
As part of Persian customs and traditions, Iranians perform various rituals in the first ten days of Muharram. These rituals include religious theaters, pageantries, mourning sessions, and distributing Nazri and Kheirat. The peak of these events takes place on Ashura, the last day. At the heart of the mourning days lies sheer storytelling and retelling the events the led up to Ashura. Then, on the last day, almost everyone attends the glorious events in which hundreds of people mourn. Food is given out by thousands to feed the poor, and a state of catharsis dominates the whole nation.
Many tourists come to Iran to watch the mourning each year. They believe that the rituals are unique, and they travel to different cities in Iran to watch uniquely different customs and pageantries. Iran’s small group tours are recommended in this arena.
Muslim eves are also very significant among Persian customs and traditions. On these eves, Iranians go to each other’s house and give gifts to their loved ones. Nazri and Kheirat are also very common on these eves.
Qorban eve (Eid-al-Adha), or the feast of the sacrifice, is a festival that Muslims celebrate around the globe. On this day, according to stories, Abraham the prophet was going to sacrifice his son by order of God, but all that was a test of his faith. God then sends Abraham a sheep to sacrifice instead of his son. In this way, God showed Abraham that he passed the test and his faith was flawless.
Muslims sacrifice sheep on this day and distribute the meat among the poor and all those who are in need. Any Muslim can do this for Nazri or Kheirat. But for those who are Haji (who have done the religious duty of paying the pilgrimage to Mecca), doing this is an obligation if and only if they have enough money to do that.
In Iran, too, the Persian celebrate Qorban eve by giving away meat and paying a visit to their loved ones. Remember that all Muslim eves are holidays in Iran, which means most of the places you can go to, like theaters and museums, are closed.
Qadir takes place a week after Qorban. This is a significant eve to Shi’a Muslims. On this day, Muhammad (PBUH) the prophet performed a moment-defining deed. On what was supposed to be the last Hadj (journey to Mecca), he announced that Ali (PBUH) as his successor. Imam Ali officially became known as the first Imam and people promised to follow him after Muhammad.
Iranians honor this event by giving each other small amounts of money as a sign of good luck and visit their loved ones on this day. This is a national holiday in Iran. During the week between Qorban and Qadir, many stores and sites give out discounts and announce sales.
Ramadan is celebrated by all Muslims around the world, and Iran is no exception. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from early morning to early evening. They avoid eating and doing any sins, and they believe this month purifies their souls. Eating, drinking, and smoking are banned in public during Ramadan. Following the Iran dress code is also very important during Ramadan.
Fetr eve is the last day of Ramadan. Muslims celebrate this day by saying goodbye prayers. Then, they give each other gifts and they also give away some food or money for the poor (this is an obligation). In Islam, you can’t celebrate anything if you don’t involve the poor in it. Fetrieh is what is given to the poor for this purpose. This, too, is a national holiday.
Mab’as (the time of the rise) is when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) became a prophet by the instruction of God. It is a national holiday in Iran, and people celebrate it by attending religious parties.
Prophet Muhammad’s birthday is celebrated by the Persian (and all Muslims around the world). On this day, people give away Nazri and Kheirat. It is a national holiday in Iran.
There are also some weird customs in Iran. Some of them are funny, and some are seriously troublesome if you don’t know them in advance.
Sometimes, the Persian says “Nooch” instead of “Na”. It’s not even a word. It’s a sound they make with their mouths.
Pulling the wishbone is common among the Persians. The winner (the one who gets the larger part) gets to make a wish.
Burning Espand (a mixture of different dried herbs and plants) produces a strong smell. Following Avicenna, the Persians believe that burning Espand purifies the air and is very beneficial for health. There are also religious overtones involved. For example, burning Espand could keep the troubles at bay.
Soor is a party you throw when you achieve something big, like passing the university entrance exam or winning in a competition. Usually, the Persian invite their friends to dinner to celebrate the achievement.
Sitting with your back to someone is offensive, particularly if they are older than you. People usually take this as a sign of intentional offense.
Here and there, you might hear parents calling their children by their names and adding “mom” and “dad” to the name. If you hear a mom going like, “Omid, mom, where are you?”, you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s an affectionate way of calling children in Iran.
Iran is a culturally diverse and rich country. All kinds of customs and traditions are common among people. Some of the Persian customs and traditions are unique to certain groups, and some are honored by the whole nation. Before getting your Iran visa, you might want to know a bit about Iran. We tried to briefly present some of them here. But we just scratched the surface. Let us know if you liked this article, or if there is more you want to know.