This weekend, Iranians across the globe will be celebrating Nowruz, an ancient Zoroastrian festival dating back over 2500 years which marks the beginning of the Iranian New Year.
Nowruz is the largest cultural festival in Iran, our equivalent of Christmas, if you will and is a time of great significance for Iranians, steeped in symbolism from ancient Zoroastrian practices which form the bedrock of Persian culture. Iranian new year is celebrated at the exact astronomical time of the vernal equinox, signifying the end of winter and the start of spring.
In the weeks preceding Nowruz, Iranians embark on a massive spring cleaning effort, clearing their homes, practically and energetically, for the year ahead. The last Tuesday evening before the New Year is dedicated to fire ceremonies and on this night, Iranians make small bonfires on the streets or in their yards, which they jump over whilst chanting ancient adages to ward off evil spirits and purify them for the year ahead.
Each home also assembles a Nowruz altar, known as Sofreh-e Haft Seen which is made up of 7 objects beginning with the letter ‘S’ in Farsi. Each object symbolises a quality that people would like to bring into their life for the New Year. Items on the altar will vary from house-to- house but there will almost always be sprouted wheat grass for rebirth and renewal, painted eggs for fertility, a gold coin for prosperity, garlic for good health, small berries known as senjed for love, candles to represent light and hope and, my personal favourite, sweet-smelling hyacinths, for beauty. A goldfish in a bowl is also placed on the altar symbolising life within life, as is the collected works of Iran’s most celebrated poet Hafiz, whose work is considered by Iranians to be of divine provenance.
Of course like any major cultural celebration in the world, there is also a lot of feasting to be done at Nowruz too! The first meal of New Year always incorporates lots of spring greens and fresh herbs, said to symbolise new life. Sabzi Polo baa Mahi – a fragrant layered herbed rice dish, topped with fried fish, is the traditional meal to start the year with but other green foods are also enjoyed with abundance including my personal favourite, Kuku Sabzi, an emerald green frittata made with a cacophony of fresh herbs such as parsley, coriander, dill, chives and fenugreek.
There is a national holiday in Iran for the two weeks immediately after Nowruz during which time days are spent visiting family members and friends with boxes of sweets and pastries to sweetened the start to everyone’s new year. You might be treated to a box of gaz, a soft chewy nougat flavoured with pistachios and rosewater, or perhaps some light-as-air choux buns filled with thick slabs of cream known as naan e khamiee. More commonly you might be greeted with some shirini-eh khoshk, an assortment of delicate small dry biscuits or pastries, often made with chickpea flour or rice flour.
Living in the northern hemisphere, the end of winter is something that I always look forward to celebrating so I appreciate Nowruz and its rituals greatly. Finally after enduring a series of cold and dark months, I can sense the days are getting longer, the skies are getting brighter and all of us, dare I say, are feeling a little lighter. So do join us in welcoming in the new season this weekend, a celebration of the start of spring is one I think we could all get down with. Wishing you all a very happy Nowruz, or was we would say in Farsi, Aid Mubarak!