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Persian New Year: History & Traditions


As January 1st comes and goes, it’s easy to feel like all of the resolutions that held high hopes have slowly dwindled away. It’s the dead of winter and a fresh start is just what people need. January is full of motivation, February starts to slow down and by March, well, everyone is over it. But, as winter comes to an end and spring is on the horizon, people feel like they’re getting a second chance. It’s a time for spring cleaning, trying those new habits again and starting the next chapter of your life. The first day of spring is especially important to one group of people – Iranians! The vernal equinox marks the start of Persian New Year, or Nowruz, a time to celebrate a new beginning. Although Nowruz is celebrated in Iran, it’s observed by many cultures and countries around the world including Afghanistan, Albania, India, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Turkmenistan.

What Is It?

Nowruz is celebrated worldwide by Iranian and non-Iranians with festivities that last a few days leading up to the spring equinox and a couple weeks after. Being celebrated for about 3000 years, Nowruz has always been a time to let go of the darkness and enter in a new era of light. Vox reported that the important part about the history of Nowruz is that it stemmed from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion that was created before both Christianity and Islam. CNN states the importance of showing that Nowruz is a “universal celebration” rather than a religious holiday.

When and How Is It Celebrated?

Vox states that the equinox is typically between March 19-20, however there are celebrations leading up to the new year’s day and a couple weeks after. This year, it happened on Sunday, March 20th at 8:34 am PST. Leading up to the spring equinox, many Iranian families will begin their spring cleaning to symbolize a fresh start. This includes a deep clean of their homes, rooms and even their Persian rugs. Along with cleaning, many people set up a “Haft-Seen”, a table of sacred items that literally translates to “7 S’s”, to represent renewal and prosperity. “Seen” is literally the letter “S” in Farsi (س). Vox reported on the 7 important items each Haft-Seen needs and what they represent:

  • Sabzeh: a sprout/wheatgrass for rebirth and renewal 
  • Senjed: dried fruit for love
  • Sib: an apple for beauty 
  • Seer: garlic for medicine and health
  • Samanu: a sweet paste made from germinated wheat for wealth and fertility 
  • Serkeh: vinegar for patience
  • Sumac: a Persian spice for the sunrise of a new day

Although these are the traditional 7 items that are placed on every Haft-Seen, many families add other objects that represent their own values. Many people place a mirror to represent the reflection of creation, a hyacinth for spring, coins and money for prosperity or pictures of loved ones. After a full-spring cleaning and set-up of the Haft-Seen, the festivities kick off with Chaharshahbe Soori, translated as “Red Wednesday”. CNN dove deeper and explained that the Wednesday before Nowruz, people jump over fire (Yes. You read that correctly) and sing traditional Persian songs. One of the songs says, “Give me your beautiful red color and take back my sickly pallor!”. CNN also reported that Zoroastrianism had a central focus on fire. The Heritage Institute said that fire within Zoroastrianism was an “essential [element] for sustaining life”, hence the importance of honoring fire in the modern day Nowruz traditions.

We’ve deep-cleaned our Persian rugs, set up our Haft-Seen and jumped over plenty of fire. The day has finally come…Happy Nowruz! The first day of spring, or the vernal equinox, marks the first day of Persian New Year with festivities continuing for almost two full weeks after. A full thirteen days after Nowruz, families throw the sprout/wheatgrass from their Haft-Seen into flowing waters to represent rebirth. Within the 13 days, there are plenty of family gatherings and celebrations to bring people together and celebrate the new year. On the 13th day of Nowruz, people celebrate Sizdah Be-Dar to mark the end of the holiday. This typically includes an outdoor picnic with friends and family, as Sizdah Be-Dar translates to “out with the 13th” day in Farsi. This represents getting rid of bad luck and ringing in good fortune for the new year!

UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it eloquently in their 2022 statement, “as humanity faces unprecedented challenges, let us be guided by the Nowruz spirit of solidarity and renew our pledge to live in harmony, protect our planet and leave no one behind.” The UN officially recognized “International Day of Nowruz” a holiday back in 2010 and has been making efforts to celebrate it worldwide. 

What Did I Do Growing Up?

As an Iranian-American, Spring was always my favorite time of year. It was not only the best weather (granted I’m born and raised in California so it’s…always nice), but it was when my family and I got to celebrate Nowruz. 

In the weeks prior to Persian New Year, my family would set up a beautiful Haft-Seen which included the traditional 7 S’s along with eggs for fertility, coins for prosperity, pictures of loved ones who had passed away and hyacinths for spring (and their beauty!). We also used to have a goldfish on our Haft Seen. According to the Tehran Times, a goldfish represents good luck and a new start to the month. The red color of the goldfish also represents kindness, victory, livelihood and affluence. Unfortunately the goldfish never made it too far into Nowruz…the irony always gave me a good chuckle.

After we have the Haft-Seen set up, we join our family and friends for Chaharshahbe Soori to jump over a few fire pits and then prepare for the big new year’s celebration. Our actual Persian New Year celebrations were typically held on the Saturday closest to Persian New Year so we could have a full-fledged party. When we were growing up, the tradition was that we had to dress up in something new to represent the fresh start. I remember how much fun I had with my family and loved ones growing up and am grateful that we continue to have these celebrations today. We used to celebrate Sizdah Be-Dar as well and go to a huge park in the Bay Area that was known for hosting this beautiful picnic day. Below is a photo of our most recent Haft-Seen:

Our family is not super traditional so we don’t do every single little celebration when it comes to Nowruz but we do what’s important – spend time with loved ones. I know that every year, come spring time, I will have a lot more to celebrate than just the first day of a new season! 

Sources:

More than 300 million people will celebrate Nowruz (and you should, too)

International Nowruz Day

Persian New Year, or Nowruz, explained

Goldfish on Haft Seen, to be or not to be?

Sizdah Be-Dar

Yasi Agah is a San Francisco native who loves to read, write, roller-skate and listen to Blink 182. Her favorite genre is definitely memoirs. Becoming by Michelle Obama makes her tear up every time she reads it.

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