Norooz (Persian: New day), the Persian New Year, is celebrated on the vernal equinox, down to the second, which is calculated by astronomic forecasting based on Iran Standard Time (GMT+03:30). Norooz 2021 marks year 1400 on the Iranian solar calendar.
These days, Norooz is a secular holiday that unites the Persian community in worldwide celebration. Described as an “ancient rite” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Norooz dates back thousands of years. It originated from Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion, which is widely thought to be the first monotheistic religion. Zoroastrianism shaped the Persian Empire and is suggested to be the bedrock for major Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).
Though the beginnings of Norooz remain shrouded in mystery, scholars now know that Norooz traditions persisted through the establishment of the first Persian Empire, the Achamaenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great. The fourth Achaemaenid king, Darius I, ruled over the largest territorial expansion of the Persian Empire from 522 to 486 BC. This territory included land spanning from Western Europe and the Caucasus Region to what is now northwest India. Under Darius I, the Persian Empire also stretched into Africa, in what is now Egypt and Libya.
Norooz is not only confined to celebration by Iranians. Norooz is also observed by countries in Europe: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and parts of European Russia (such as Dagestan). And in Asia, countries like Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Tibet, and parts of China celebrate Norooz as well. It is also a holiday in Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, and Qatar.
Modern Norooz celebrations involve many traditions, such as:
● Khaneh Tekani: Performing a thorough spring cleaning of one’s home
● Charshanbe Suri: An outdoor celebration the Wednesday before Norooz, in which people jump over fire — which is symbolic and sacred to Zoroastrians — and recite the saying, “sorkhi-e to az man, zardi-e man az to” — which loosely means “your health is mine, my paleness (sickness) is yours.”
● Sofreh Haft-Seen: Setting out a Haft-Seen spread with seven items that begin with the Farsi letter س (pronounced “seen”) is a Norooz tradition. The items each symbolize different things and include sprouted grain or beans (sabzeh), a sweet pudding made of wheat germ (samanu), persian olive (senjed), apple (seeb), garlic (seer), coins (sekkeh), hyacinth flowers (sonbol), clock (saat), and/or sumac. Other
items typically placed at the haft-seen include goldfish, painted eggs, Persian pastries, and a book of wisdom, such as the epic Shahnameh; the Muslim Quran; the Zoroastrian Avesta; or a book of poems by famed Persian poet Hafiz.
● Saal Tahvil: The moment that the clock strikes 12 in Iran is known as Saal Tahvil. Families celebrating Norooz sit at the Haft-Seen table, eagerly awaiting Saal Tahvil, which ushers in the New Year. After the year has changed, celebrants call or visit their relatives and wish them the best for the year ahead.
● Sizdah Bedar: After the Norooz celebrations, families spend several days visiting their friends and family to ring in the new year. On the 13th day after Norooz, they may participate in a picnic called Sizdah Bedar, which marks the end of the Norooz celebrations.
Dr. Touraj Daryaee is an Iranian historian who knows a lot about the origins of Norooz. He is Maseeh Chair in Persian Studies and Culture and the director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies at the University of California, Irvine. I talked to Dr. Daryaee to learn about the beginnings of this ancient Iranian holiday. According to Dr. Daryaee, Norooz is linked to seasonal feasts, “changing of the seasons
of any agrarian society.”
Before the calendar was fixed, the holiday rotated. It did not fall on the vernal equinox and became a fixed date later on in the post-Sasanian Islamic period.
Another seasonal holiday, which occurred six months later, was Mehregan (also called “The Persian Festival of Autumn). Both festivals were celebrated with extravagance, probably in Persepolis, the Achamaenid ceremonial capital, and are dual Persian and Zoroastrian holidays.
As far as the first true origins of Norooz?
Dr. Daryaee, tells us we have “glimpses of the celebrations throughout time here and there–nothing continuous.” As he says, “The beginning of Norooz is wrapped in myth.” It is mentioned in Ferdowsi’s epic, The Shahnameh, in the story of Jamshid, the mythical king. In the Shahnameh, the mythical king, Jamshid, would sit and people would come to get gifts from him. The textual evidence for Norooz comes much later. It is thought that Persepolis, the Achamaenid ceremonial capital, was a center for celebrations. The typical Norooz party at Persepolis would “have a joyous atmosphere, nothing sardonic or rigid, people holding flowers, talking to each other.” As Dr. Daryaee notes, there are beautiful rock reliefs depicting Norooz celebrations in Persepolis. The King and the court would join the people in celebration of the new year. When Norooz fell on the Sabbath, Jews would get presents from the king.
Later on, in the Sasanian period (224 to 651 CE), the festive traditions of Norooz would continue. The king would give out presents. Silver and gold coins put in fruits such as apples and quinces. When Islam arrived, the celebration was carried out in different ways. In Baghdad’s Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th and 10th century, people stayed up all night cooking and making food for Norooz. They also poured water on each other and served melon. “It was quite festive,” Dr. Daryaee says. He has studied Norooz traditions extensively, both historically and in the current day. He has published an article on how Norooz is celebrated worldwide which you can find in Persian here.
As far as traditions such as the Haft Seen or Saal Tahvil, which are celebrated in Iran mainly, these are new, “probably about 100 years old,” Dr. Daryaee says. During Saal Tahvil, everyone sits around the Haft Seen, waiting for the clock to say that the year has changed. “The last 30 seconds the clock goes tick tock tick tock, and we get presents from our elders,” as Dr. Daryaee relates. The gift-giving aspect, he says, dates back to antiquity when people gave gold or silver coins placed in apples or quinces. Both coins and apples are now mainstays of the Haft-Seen, perhaps owing it to this ancient tradition.
Harvard has compiled a comprehensive guide to understanding Norooz, which you can read here. As they write, Norooz festivities celebrate the Earth’s rebirth associated with the coming of spring. Norooz activities share similarities with other spring festivals, such as Christianity’s Easter, Judaism’s Purim, and an Egyptian holiday called Sham Al-Naseem that dates back to when Pharaohs ruled Egypt. I asked Dr. Daryaee about the similarities between Norooz and other spring holidays, and he said that there is “no definitive knowledge on the influences of Norooz.”
Dr. Daryaee has studied the history of Norooz and its celebration in detail. He has written a “Norooz Encyclopedia” documenting how Norooz is celebrated in 60-70 places around the world–Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and even Kashmir–to locales within Iran such as Lorestan and Mazandaran. The extended group of people and nations around the world that celebrate in “so many ways,” says Dr. Daryaee of the diversity of celebrations.
In nations such as Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, people cook and celebrate differently from each other. Tajikistani traditions include cooking broth from wheat. The Kurds in Syria also celebrate differently than those who are in Iran or near China–Uyghurs, Western China, Afghanistan.
Delicious foods including manti (spiced meat dumplings), samsa (savory pastry, often with meat or cheese, baked in a clay oven), and fried chuchvara (fried dumplings) adorn a traditional Noruz food spread in Andijan, Uzbekistan.
One of the misconceptions about the origins of the Haft Seen, which is a new tradition, and was developed in the past 100 years, is that the Haft Seen used to be called “Haft Sheen.”
“No, they did not used to be the “Haft Sheens,” Dr. Daryaee says. “The words “sharbat” (referring to sweet drinks) and “sharaab” (referring to wine) are Arabic. The Persian word for “sharaab” is “mey,” and did not start with either the Persian letter seen (س) or sheen (ش). The Haft Seen “may have gone back to a seasonal celebration”–sabzi (vegetables) and fruit–what we see throughout Asia “reflecting agricultural commodities that were prepared or set together.”
Iranians and others celebrating Norooz internationally are cancelling their large, boisterous Norooz celebrations due to the pandemic and are in large part in favor of a Saal Tahvil spent over Zoom or Facetime. An Iranian and Jewish friend I reached out to wrote, “I think we’re going to be celebrating the New Year how we’ve celebrated everything else in the past year—just with my immediate family. We haven’t chatted about it yet, but I don’t think [we will do] anything too crazy! It doesn’t fall with any Jewish holidays this time but it would have been cool!”
Regardless of how we choose to celebrate ringing in the Persian year 1400, one thing is for sure: taking precautions this year will ensure that we will have many more happy and healthy New Years’ celebrations with our loved ones. It’s up to us to do the right thing and stay home
this year for the health of Norooz celebrants worldwide.