Although you have probably never heard of it, for an estimated 300 million people worldwide, Nowruz, the Persian New Year, has begun. Nowruz, which traces its origins to the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, is a huge celebration in which fire plays a significant role. Just how big is it? Well, to give you some sort of an idea, it’s a combination of Christmas, New Year’s and Fourth of July all wrapped into one. Nowruz features fire festivities, delicious meats, rice and spices, family gatherings and street dances, among other things. Oh, and did I mention that people like to bang on pots loudly during this celebration? Sound like fun? Well, the good news is you don’t have to be Persian to celebrate Nowruz. Nowruz, which means “new day,” always kicks off on the Vernal Equinox (Spring equinox). March 20 marked the start of the month-long celebration this year.
Not a religious holiday
Nowruz is a universal celebration of new beginnings. It’s a time when families give their homes a thorough cleaning and purchase new clothes as a means of wishing for prosperity, welcoming the future and putting the past behind. It’s, a time of neighborliness and reconciliation that also promotes solidarity and peace within families and between generations. And according to the United Nations, it “contributes to cultural diversity and friendship among peoples and different communities,” something we could all use more of today. More than 300 million people worldwide Celebrated for more than 3,000 years from the Balkans to the Black Sea Basin to Central Asia to the Middle East and elsewhere, the United Nations officially designated March 21 in 2010 as International Nowruz Day at the request of countries including Afghanistan, Albania, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Turkmenistan. Nowruz celebrants fill the month with parties, craft-making, street performances and public rituals. Did I mention delicious food?
Jumping over fires (more on that later) and banging pots will make anyone hungry, and Nowruz brings out the best of Persian cuisine. Famous around the world, especially in Los Angeles, which has the largest Persian population outside of Iran, Persian cuisine features lots of grilled meats, fluffy rice with tasty berries, especially Barberries.
Barberries or “zereshk” in Farsi, are a tart and tangy dried berry that resembles miniature cranberries or a red version of currants, used in stews and spicy foods. There’s also a wide variety of pastries and colorful cookies. Persian fish, meat, rice, noodles and beans in various dishes feature such delights as fresh mint, tarragon, basil and other green herbs. Nowruz dishes include Sabzi Polo Mahi (fried fish with rice and green herbs), Dolmeh Barg (cooked meat and rice stuffed inside grape leaves) and Fesenjan (meat, chicken or sometimes duck in a delicious pomegranate and walnut sauce).
Nowruz meals and traditions are shared by family, friends and neighbors. The “Haft Sin” table, for example, features seven symbolic items that all begin with the Farsi letter “S,” and includes wheatgrass, herbs, dried food and vinegar. These items represent hopes that the new year will include health, wealth and prosperity. Examples include “Sir,” which means garlic and “Serkeh” (vinegar), which represents longevity and patience. In addition to mirrors, candles, decorated eggs and fruit, some families place goldfish on the table for good luck. Communities, families and friends come together to celebrate the beginning of spring, but the celebrations don’t stop when the first day of the new year has passed.
Thirteen days later, everyone heads outdoors and spreads the wheatgrass they’ve been growing and using to decorate their Haft Sin tables into flowing waters to absorb all the negative energy from each home. Why 13, a number usually considered to be unlucky in many cultures, you may be wondering? This is a public picnic day, called “Sizdeh Bedar,” which comes from the Farsi words for “thirteen” and “day out.” This holiday dates back to Iran’s pre-Islamic past that hard-liners never managed to erase from calendars in the Islamic Republic. As for being unlucky, well, many say it’s bad luck to stay indoors for the holiday.
Jumping over fires
Jumping over fires is one of two major traditions that mark the old year’s final few days. Before spring rolls in, children celebrate something similar to Halloween by running through the streets, banging on pots, knocking on doors and asking people for candy or money. Fire is a symbol of light, good and hopes for enlightenment and happiness in the new year. People jump over bonfires on the final Wednesday of the year known as “Chaharshanbe Soori” (Red Wednesday) while singing traditional songs and shouting a phrase that translates to “give me your beautiful red color and take back my sickly pallor!” As I mentioned earlier, Nowruz traces its origins to the religion of Zoroastrianism, in which fire and light were essential elements for sustaining life. So, for everyone out there celebrating Nowruz: “Eide Shoma Mobarak!” Happy New Year!