The legend says that on the last days of winter, when the spring breeze can be felt on the air, an old woman, living alone in her house on the outskirts of her town, starts anticipating the return of her love, who is on a 12-month journey. This old woman’s name is Nane Sarma (Lady winter / Grandma Frost) and her love is an old man called Amu Nowruz (Uncle Nowruz). When the last day of winter finally arrives, Nane Sarma wears her best clothes, meticulously cleans her house, she puts a rug in her terrace, overlooking her front yard, and she puts fruit and nuts in bowls, awaiting the arrival of her beloved. She waits and waits until she slowly drifts to sleep. Right when she is asleep, Amu Nowruz finally comes from the hill that overlooks the town. He comes to her house and sees that the woman has waited for her just like all the other years. But Nane Sarma looks so peacefully asleep, that Amu Nowruz finds it hard to awaken her from her nap. Instead, he plucks a pot marigold flower from the garden, and puts it right near her head. Because Amu Nowruz is the messenger of the spring and he should go and deliver this message to everywhere, he can’t stay more than a few minutes, and while Nane Sarma is asleep, he bids her farewell and leaves to bring the happy news of arrival of spring to other people as well. When Nane Sarma wakes up, she realizes that she has missed her chance yet again, but she sees the marigold flower and the eaten fruit, and realizes that her beloved Amu Nowruz had been in her house.
Just like Nane Sarma in this legend, we too often feel like spring arrives so quickly and unexpectedly. In Iran, the last month of the year, Esfand, is a month which passes away too hastily, as if it’s in a hurry to welcome the first day of Spring. Esfand is, if not the best, one of the most beautiful months of the year in Iran. For every Iranian, Nowruz or the Iranian new year, is a time of wonder and beauty. Streets are lined up with vendors selling Sabze (germinated wheat sprouts), hyacinths, cineraria and various colorful new-year flowers in pink and purple and burgundy. Kids buy goldfish happily and everybody feverishly cleans their home in the anticipation of the new year. Families buy sweets, pastries, nuts and dried fruit, and everybody counts the days until the big day. When the new year comes (which happens at a different time each year) you can see people dressed up and in crisp suits and shiny shoes everywhere, going to see their families.
New year also means gorging on a delicious, mouthwatering feast. The most famous traditional new-year dish in Iran is herbal rice with fish. Of course, because fish is not a staple in many Iranian households (especially in the past), there are various other new-year dishes as well. For example, in north west of Iran (Azerbaijan province), one popular new year dish is Dolmeh. Dolmeh, is a fragrant mixture of rice, yellow split peas, several kind of herbs (dill, …) mixed and cooked together which is then wrapped into tender grape leaves and cooked. As a final touch, it’s garnished with a handful of dried “Zereshk” berries and golden fried onion shavings. It is said that the pot containing the Dolme should be simmering while the new year arrives. Another popular dish is rice mixed with noodles and “Aash reshte” which can be described as something between a soup and a stew which also contains noodles. These foods are a symbol of bringing good fortune and prosperity.
The traditions surrounding Nowruz varies from place to place. The nomads also celebrate Nowruz in their own way. Instead of cleaning every nook and cranny in the house, they dissemble their tent and set it up a fair distance away. They make the Haft-seen table with any items they might have available that start with the sound “s”. Afterward, they dress in their new clothes and go visit the other families/tribes that are living close by. Of course, living a nomadic lifestyle means there are no days off, so while the rest of the country goes travelling or enjoys staying at home, the nomads will be doing their normal routine of shepherding. Instead of Nowruz being just one day, the Bakhtiari people celebrate it for 3 days. They also gather together and sit around the tent, while the patron of the tribe (or any old and wise person) recites tales of Shahnameh (the ancient Iranian epic tales) and poems of Hafiz. During this part, you can see the tribe members, specially children, listen entranced and in awe to the incredible stories of these ancient poems. For the nomadic people, who spend their days away from any source of digital entertainment, the tales of Shahnameh about bravery and epic battles between good and evil are just as fascinating as watching TV series to modern city dwellers.
Cleaning for the new year and buying new stuff is the basis of the Persian New Year. About one month before Nowruz, people start to clean their houses and buy new clothes and some snack like sweets, chocolate, and nuts to serve their guests who visit them.
In the last weeks of the solar year, the character Haji Firooz with a red suit comes to the streets and sings about the new year coming. He has a tambourine in his hand and with his joyful songs aim to spread happiness among people. His unique appearance gets everybody’s attention. It is believed that he helped people to burn their old stuff to renew everything, that is why his face is covered with soot. Haji Firroz goes back to Zoroastrianism when the priests sent him to town to spread that Nowruz is coming. If you go to Iran in the middle of March, you can still see Haji Firooz singing in the streets.
Charshanbe Souri is a popular festival on the last Tuesday night of the solar year. It is right before Nowruz. At night people gather together, burn the bush, jump over, and sing songs. They do it to repel evil and make the dreams come true. They believe that by singing “My yellow colour for you, your red colour for me” they can take the fire’s heat and energy and give their negative energies to fire. So ashes are considered to be ominous. There are different rituals for Charshanbe Soori described in Iranian Cultures and Traditions like Breaking the Pottery Pitcher (Kuze Shekani), Stirring the Spoons (Ghashogh Zani), and Eavesdropping.
Before the Nowruz, families try to prepare a table with seven plants that start with S. That is why they call it “Haft Sin” which means “7 Ss”. Each of the plants symbolize a different object like wisdom, patience, rebirth and wealth. The significant one is Sabzeh which is the symbol of energy and taking all the negative vibes around. Sabzeh is greens sprouted from wheat or lentils, it is a symbol of rebirth and renewal. Senjed is dried fruit from a lotus tree which is a symbol of love. Sib (apple) is for beauty and health. Seer (Garlic) is for medical care. Samanu (a pudding) is a symbol of fertility and wealth. The symbol of wisdom on Haft Sin is Serkeh (vinegar). Somagh (a Persian spice) is for the sunrise.
Aside from all the Haft Seen, Iranians put Quran, painted eggs, goldfish, Hafez (book of Hafez’s poems), candles and a mirror on the table. When it is close to the new year, families gather together around the table, read the Quran or Haze and wait for the new year.
It is herb rice which mostly is served with white fish. Most of Iranians serve Sabzi Polo ba Mahi for the New Year day or night. People usually go to their families and celebrate it together.
Eid means new year. But Eidi has two meanings in Persian. One is for visiting family and friends and going to their houses in the new year to pay your respect. Iranians call it going to Eidi. The other is a gift or amount of money that the host gives to guests in Nowruz. If the host gives the guests money as a present, before the new year, they typically put some money in the Quran and then give money from Quran as a gift to the guest to bring all the good and wealth in the New Year for them. In these family meetings, the host mostly serves Ajil (mixed nuts), dried fruits, chocolate, sweets, and fruits for guests.
It is some mixed nuts that people put on the coffee tables to serve the guests who come to pay their respect in Nowruz. Ajil consists of pistachios, almonds, peanut, melon seeds, hazelnuts, and etc. Beside it, the host also serves dried fruits, sweets and candies, and fruits for guests.
On the last day of Nowruz holidays, Iranians go outdoors. Sizdah Bedar is on 13th day of Nowruz/ Farvardin which equals to April fools day or Aril, 2nd; it depends on the year. They take stuff outdoors for a picnic and typically play volleyball, badminton, or some other things. People barbeque chickens or Kebab and make Ash for the evening and eat a lot of junk foods, snack, and tea. They also take the Sabzeh -green sprout- out with themselves and throw it away at the end of the day mostly in a river. Some single girls believe that by knotting the sprouts, they can find a suitable spouse in the following year. So before throwing it to nature, they do so.
Of course, this year because of the corona virus situation, our new year doesn’t have the same color and vibe it used to have. I remember how as kids, we used to all gather in my grandmother’s place and bring the walls down with our noise, playing and running around, awaiting the magical moment when we would be awarded with a crisp bill of money from inside the Quran as Eidi. This year, everybody is encouraged to stay at home and the family gatherings that made every new year so special can’t take place. Still, while it is inhumane to be under sanctions in this dire global situation, our country is trying to safely pass the last Nowruz of this decade (1399) with the help of the people and the dedicated medical staff.