Nowruz (Farvardin 1st) is the beginning of the Persian year and also the beginning of spring. In fact, it takes place on March equinox. March equinox or spring equinox (in the Northern Hemisphere) in astronomy is the moment when the sun passes through the celestial plane and moves northward. The spring equinox is one of two equinoxes that occur each year (the other one is the fall equinox).
Iranians celebrate this day through a 13-day festival. It’s not, however, just a festival to them. To Iranians, and in fact, to all the Persian speakers around the world, Nowruz is the beginning of a new chapter in life. They consider it to be the rise of Mother Nature. If the New Year falls during an afternoon, the next day will be the first day of the year. Otherwise, it is on the same day when the New Year falls.
Nowruz starts on Farvardin 1st (March 20th). In solar calendars, after almost every four years, you’ll get a leap year. A leap year is a year in which you’ll get an additional day to keep the calendar synchronized.
Nowruz is a combination of two words: Now (which means “new”) and Ruz (which means “day”). Although the word has gone through many phases of morphological transformation during its life cycle, it has basically remained unchanged in terms of meaning. So, it means “a new day”, but the word “day” has a broader meaning in Farsi. It roughly means “times” or “the period in which you live”. It, therefore, means a new season or period in your life. Probably that’s why people celebrate Nowruz around the world regardless of their nationality or religion. It’s noteworthy that we have two Nowruzes in the Iranian calendar: the general Nowruz (Farvardin 1st, the beginning of the year), and the special one (Farvardin 6th, which is oddly called “the day of Khordad”).
Nowruz celebration has its roots in ancient Persia, one of the oldest and most important Iranian celebrations. The origin and timing of it are unclear. Some historical accounts attribute the beginning of Nowruz to the Babylonians. According to these accounts, the prevalence of Nowruz in Iran dates back to the year 538 BC, the time of Cyrus the Great’s invasion of Babylon. In some accounts, Zoroastrians have been mentioned as the founder of Nowruz.
In what has remained of the Achaemenid era, there is no direct mention of Nowruz. However, we know that Iranians celebrated it in the Parthian and Sassanid periods. But in the post-Islamic era, especially in the Safavid era, this celebration became a more national symbol.
Probably Nowruz has its roots in some Iranian religions, mostly Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. The Sun’s light plays a significant role in Mithraism. It celebrated in many festivals related to this religion. Other Persian festivals like Mehrgan, Tirgan, and Yalda were also connected to Sun god (Surya).
In Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion in history, there is little evidence of celebrating Nowruz per se, but we can find lots of emphasis on nature and light and the coming of the New Year. Among the Zoroastrian festivals, there is the Farvardingan Festival, which is highly similar to Nowruz. People celebrated Farvardingan from Esfand 25th to Farvardin 5th (ten days, five before and five after the eve’s day). Another festival emphasized in Avesta is Gahambars. In Avesta, there is a reference to it, but it may not be about the celebration of the occasion. In the book, Nowruz is referred to as “the Eve of the Rising”, but some experts believe this is too broad to be particularly referring to it.
You can’t find the word Nowruz in any of the Achaemenid inscriptions. But, according to Xenophon, it was a popular celebration in Persepolis and later in the Achaemenid era. Therefore, the rulers of different Achaemenid states would give gifts to the King. This was so important that they didn’t recognize King Cambyses II’s as the ruler of Babylon until he participated in this festival.
There is no strong evidence to suggest that Babylonians celebrated Nowruz as Iranians did before Cyrus attacked them. In fact, there is no evidence up to the siege of Babylon by Cyrus the Great to show that there was any influence on Iranian culture by the Babylonian culture. However, there were similarities between the two. One of these similarities was in the seasonal celebrations. One theory is that, after the siege of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, the celebrations and rituals became very similar in form but different in meaning. Even if we do not know which one was the influencer of Nowruz traditions, we can surely say both nations celebrated it.
During the Parthian and Sassanid eras, Iranians celebrated Nowruz. Back then, there were numerous celebrations during the year, the most important of which were Nowruz and Mehregan. The celebration of Nowruz in the Sassanid era took several days (at least six days) and was divided into two periods of small and large Nowruz. Small Nowruz (or public Nowruz) lasted five days, from the 1st to the 5th of Farvardin. On each of the days of public Nowruz, a class of people (peasants, clerics, military men, artisans, and aristocrats) would visit the Shah (king), and the Shah would listen to their problems. On the sixth day, the king had solved the problems of the people, and on that day, only the king’s relatives were present around him.
Amid all the festivities that have been neglected in Iran after Islam due to the rulers’ disregard for them, Nowruz has maintained its status as a national holiday in Iran. The reason for the persistence of Nowruz in Iranian culture can be its deep connection with Iranian customs, Iranian history, and Iranian cultural memory.
The Arabs conquered the capital of the Sassanid Empire on the first day of Nowruz. Thereafter, they imposed heavy taxes on the celebrations of Nowruz and Mehregan. The caliphs of the two Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties continued this practice, although they later attended and celebrated the Nowruz celebration.
There is no sign of the celebration of Nowruz during the Umayyads. In the Abbasid period, according to Tabari history, Motazed prevented the people of Baghdad from setting fire on the day of Nowruz and splashing water on the pedestrians but withdrew his orders after fearing the possibility of a riot. Fatimid caliphs also repeatedly forbade the fire and sprinkling of Nowruz. From the extant scripts of the fourth century AH in Baghdad, you can see that in the days of Nowruz, people wore new clothes, gave apples to each other, cooked special foods, and women used special Nowruz perfumes. At this time, Muslims drank molasses and splashed water along with non-Muslims. The Abbasids sometimes welcomed Nowruz to accept popular gifts.
With the coming of the Taherian, Samanian, and Al-Buyeh dynasties, the Nowruz celebration became more widely held. In these periods, with the arrival of Nowruz, the court poets praised it with their poems and congratulated the king on the arrival of Nowruz. Baihaqi has written about the glory of Nowruz in the Ghaznavian court. Court poets such as Farrokhi, Manouchehri, and Saad Salman created some of the most beautiful poetic works about Nowruz.
During the Seljuk era, at the behest of Jalaluddin Malek Shah Seljuk, a number of Iranian astronomers, including Khayyam, came together to improve the Iranian calendar. The group placed Nowruz on the first day of spring and fixed its place there. Known as the Jalali calendar, the calendar states that in order to keep it in the beginning of spring, these scientists considered the number of days in a year to be 366 days instead of 365 days. This was a periodic thing, and it happened approximately every four years (sometimes every five years). ThE calendar began in the year 392 AH.
One of the celebrations mentioned in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is the Nowruz ritual. According to ancient legends written in the Persian epic Shahnameh, Nowruz came into being during the reign of Jamshid, a mythical prince. Jamshid defeated the evil demons and took their treasures and jewelry and made them his slaves. Then, he became the ruler of the whole world except the heavens. However, the world destroyed after the war between him and the devils. The trees were dead, all of their leaves shed, and the earth had become a dark, inanimate place. So, Jamshid made Nowruz as the time when all darkness goes away and when life and light overcome death and darkness.
Nowruz also celebrated in the Safavid era. In the year 1597, Shah Abbas Safavi held a Nowruz ceremony in Naghsh-e-Jahan Estate of Isfahan and declared the city the permanent capital of Iran. In Islam and particular Shi’ism, Nowruz is a blessed day. From the Shi’a point of view, it is the day of the emergence of Imam Mahdi. Iranians celebrated Nowruz throughout Iranian history, but in the post-Islamic era, especially in the Safavid period, this celebration became a more national and courtlier symbol. Later, with the influence of Shi’a jurists, the importance of national symbols diminished.
Upon Nowruz, the Qajar court organized a special celebration of the magnificent New Year’s Eve. The main event was “Nowruz Salutation”, which they organized in three parts. First part was “the public salutation”, the second was the public “marble throne salutation”, and the last one was the special “gate salutation”. The day before eve, the head of the royal court, Ali Khan Zahir al-Dawlah, sent the king’s invitation to various classes. Invitees had to come one hour before the announcement of the new year. Saluting Nowruz performed in the Marble Throne Gallery in Golestan Palace.
Nowruz in the contemporary era is a little bit different from the past. People have tried to keep the essentials untouched, while they have changed the shape of everything. So, they still have the traditions, and they still keep to the customs, but everything now has a modern form. Now they wait for the TV to announce the falling of the eve. They also use beautiful bowls to keep Sabzeh in. Over the course of the past few years, however, there has been a slow movement towards revitalizing the ancient form of the customs and discarding the modern forms. It should be mentioned that, it has been registered as intangible cultural heritage list of UNESCO on March 27, 2010.
In this part, we are going to take a peek at what’s going on during Persian new year in contemporary times. These delightful customs are;
Chaharshanbeh Suri is the last Wednesday of the year. It’s a celebration of light and fire. People jump over fire and recite folklore songs. This is how they welcome the coming of the new year.
Children go around doing “trick or treat” with hitting spoons on the small bowls they carry, just like what happens on Halloween. People, then, open their doors to put gifts and food in their bowls.
Another tradition is Khaneh Tekani (which roughly translates into “house shaking”). Iranians go shopping and clean their houses. This is based on a traditional belief that states that light and cleanliness leaves room for the goodness to settle in the house, which eventually overcomes darkness and evil. So, a few days before Nowruz, people start to discard their old stuff and replace them with new ones. These include clothes, household items, and personal stuff.
Haft sin (the seven “S”es) is a table on which there are seven items. The name of each of these items starts with the letter “s” in Farsi. And each of them symbolizes something special. But before getting into the symbolic meanings, we should know why such a table is so important to the Persian. Historically, Iranians believed that their destiny for each year is determined by New year. Some also believed that this destiny is somehow related to the seven planets they knew. So, they would set up this table every year by putting together the significant items.
Sabze (the green vegetable, usually green wheat) signifies the rebirth of nature. Samanoo (a sweet dessert made by wheat seeds) is a symbol of all the happy and sweet moments of life which are about to come. Sib (apple), which must be red, stands for health and beauty (and also reminds you of fire). Senjed (Russian olive) symbolizes love. Sir (garlic) is a symbol of health and flourishing. Somagh (sumac) stands for the victory of light over darkness. Its color reminds you of the darkness before the moment of dawn. Finally, Serkeh (vinegar) stands for patience and longevity. Also, some other things besides these seven “S” are put on the table, like candles, colored eggs, local sweets, goldfish and Quran or Bible and some times Hafez book.
Two cultural figures, both very old, of Persian new year are Haji Firuz and Amoo Nowruz. Haji Firouz is perhaps more familiar to the contemporary Iranian. He is a figure who has its roots in contemporary Tehran. With a black face and red dress, he comes to the streets singing folklore songs and playing percussion music.
Amoo Nowruz (sometimes called Baba Nowruz), is the older figure, both historically and in terms of his age. An old man, who reminds you of Santa, comes every year to take away the winter and all its cold and sadness. He brings spring with him and goes on errands with Haji Firouz to give gifts to children. Both are now folklore symbols of Nowruz.
It is a long-standing ritual to put lamps everywhere. Its roots go back to ancient times when Aryan tribes lit torches and fires in houses and on roof-tops to welcome the coming of the new year. In today’s world, people light up every nook and cranny using all kinds of lamps, so it’s very hard to find dark spots when it’s Nowruz.
Sabzeh is one of the seven “S”es of Nowruz. In the past, Iranians planted several types of vegetables every year before Nowruz, believing that planting vegetables would make them start their year with greenness and abundance. Our ancestors saw the vegetable as a symbol of blessing and fertility. Before Eyd, they would plant barley and millet as their most important food. If the seeds were well grown, they believed they would have a blessed year. It has long been a tradition among all Iranian families to plant vegetables.
In ancient Iran, twelve columns of raw clay were set up at the town square twenty-five days before Nowruz. Each column contained different grains, such as wheat, barley, rice, beans, kajila, millet, corn, beans, and chickpeas. On the sixth day of April, they would cheerfully pick these vegetables and distribute them in the halls of the king’s palace for blessings and fertility. At the same time, they would put three bowls of these “Sabzeh”s on Haft-sin table to represent good thought, good speech, and good deed.
People would serve special Iranian foods on the eve’s night. The most popular food is Sabzi Polo and Mahi (vegetable, rice, and fish). Some would serve it on the night before new year, while some would serve it on the day of Nowruz (Farvardin 1st). The tradition is that all the family members gather together in the house of the eldest member (usually parents) and have dinner together.
Another popular food is Kookoo Sabzi. Some believe that it used to be the poor’s food because they didn’t have the money to serve fish. In any case, Nowruz special foods contain vegetables, and you now know why.
During Nowruz, people go to visit their friends and families. It is a very old tradition to host guests in Nowruz and go around the town to visit everybody. This also includes those with whom you’ve broken up. Some say reconciliation is not arbitrary during Nowruz!
All kinds of nuts and fruits are served in these family and friendly gatherings. Sometimes Iranian food is served. It is also common to visit the prominent cultural and scientific figures and bring them gifts.
Giving gifts is the most common custom on Persian New year. Historically, it has remained Fnchanged ever since Hormuzd II, the Sassanid king, first started to give coins as gifts to others. Now, during Nowruz, the elderly give the younger people gifts (usually money), and this is called “Eydi”. But Eydi is not just money and can include other gifts too. Plus, nowadays, it’s not limited to the elders, as everybody gives gifts to their loved ones.
knitting Sabze or vegetable leaves is a superstitious tradition practiced on Nowruz mostly by girls. There are two interpretations of this tradition. One says that you can make a wish and then knit Sabzeh, rest assured that your wish will realize in the new year. The second one says that (for girls) you can do this and then you’ll get married in the new year.
Another New Year’s Eve tradition is performing the thirteenth day’s ritual, which is called Sizdah Bedar (getting rid of the thirteen). Sizdah Bedar has long been a very popular tradition among Iranians, always associated with special customs. These include foods traditionally eaten on the thirteenth day, eating green almonds, and serving lettuce along with Sekanjbin.
On this day, Iranians go out to natural spots such as parks, gardens, forests, and out-of-town areas. The reason is that, historically, Iranians believe that on this day darkness looks for them inside the houses, so they should be together and out in open spaces.
Nowadays, the geography of Nowruz includes several countries and is still celebrated in these countries. In Afghanistan, for example, they set the table with seven types of fruits. In Azerbaijan, they celebrate the last four Wednesdays of the year. They also celebrate the second day of the New Year as the Day of the Remembrance of the Dead. This day is called Father’s Day.
People also celebrate it throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, Central Asia, Western China (Turkmenistan), Sudan, and Asia Minor all over the Caucasus to Astrakhan. It is celebrated in North America and Europe as well.
Following an agreement by the UN General Assembly on February 6, 2010, Nowruz is a celebration of Iranian roots dating back more than 3,000 years. Today, more than 300 million people around the world celebrate it.
Earlier in November, Nowruz had been registered as a World Heritage by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization upon the request of Uzbekistan.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution which, under Article 49, places March 2st under the heading of “Culture of Peace” as “World Nowruz Day”. For the first time, Iran hosted Nowruz celebration at the UN General Assembly and UNESCO in 2012. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also issued a message on this occasion.
The first world celebration of Nowruz held in Tehran on March 29. Tehran then became “Nowruz Secretariat”. At the celebration, heads of states celebrating Nowruz gather to celebrate this ancient ritual. Each year, one of these countries hosts International Nowruz Celebration.
Songs and music are inseparable from Nowruz. So, we can expect some customs and traditions here. Another old tradition is Nowruz Khani, which has been popular in, but not limited to, the north of Iran. Nowruz Khan is a minstrel who goes around the town singing songs in the praise of spring, religion, and nature. There are sometimes a group of Nowruz Khans. These minstrels sing songs from their memory. Some of these songs are ancient, but they orally teach the songs to the next generation of the Nowruz Khans. Nowruz songs are mostly in Gilaki or Tabari (Mazani) languages which are the local dialect of the Iranian language. Also, some times these songs are along with Iranian traditional music instruments.
Iran’s weather is amazing during spring. Any weather that you like, you’ll find it in Iran when it’s Nowruz. North of Iran is mostly rainy, lush green, and springy everywhere. Tehran has a milder spring, with less rain and a little warmer. Ardebil and Azerbaijan are places where it’s chilly and you’ll still get winter, probably snow, too! But the southern parts of Iran, and the center, are summer-like hot, sometimes windy and rainy. Qeshm and Kish are very popular in spring, because of the unpredictably joyful weather that they have during Nowruz. In any case, you don’t want to miss spring weather in Iran.
Iranians go on journeys during new year holiday. Some go to foreign countries, and some go to other towns for a trip or visitng their families and relatives. North of Iran remains the most popular, and the most populated place during Nowruz due to its unique nature. Isfahan and Shiraz are the next popular towns during these holiday because they hold so many historical sites that are great to visit in spring. Tehran is almost empty during Nowruz. So, a number of people stay in town to relax and enjoy the peace of Tehran during this time. Also, it is a good time to explore Tehran away from traffic.
Overall, Spring, and especially new year is a great time to be in Iran. It’s also the happiest time of the year. You’ll see a lot of ancient traditions and customs in the context of spring, which itself is the most welcoming season of the year. Iran tours will provide you with the greatest visits during Nowruz.