Norooz 101 – An Illustrated Guide to the Persian New Year
The Iranian New Year is called Norooz. It is pronounced as if you’re going to say “no rues” and literally means: “New Day.” Norooz starts at the precise moment when winter ends and spring begins and it is officially celebrated for two whole weeks. It’s a month away but it’ll be here before you know it. (This year: Thursday March 20th.)
Norooz is an ancient fête going back 3000 years to the beginnings of the Persian Empire, and although it has deep Zoroastrian roots, it is a secular national holiday festival that brings together Iranians of all ethnicity and religious affiliations. This unifying aspect of celebrating Norooz is chief among its myriad attractive virtues.
Here’s a pictorial introduction to the preparation and festivities involved with the arrival and greeting of Norooz. Nothing too at depth. Just the basics. Norooz 101!
Khoneh Takooni | Literally: “Shaking the House” — Spring Cleaning
Khoneh Takooni is spring cleaning on stereoids. One boldly must go where one has lazily avoided going for a year. This means washing windows, rugs, curtains, airing out the house, and scrubbing clean every conceivable item, surface, nook and cranny. It also entails making an inventory of household goods: organizing anything that needs organizing; fixing anything that needs repair; tossing out everything that is worn-out, damaged beyond use, or is simply clutter. Socks with holes? Begone. Anything messy? Organize! Necklace with a broken clasp? Fix or toss. Clutter? Donate to charity.
The idea is to greet spring and a brand new year in a state of mindful organization and purity. Combining feng shui with a purifying ritual of spring cleaning.
Solh va Safa | Literally: “Peace & Serenity” — Mending Relationships
One of the most important parts of preparing to greet the new year is to attempt to mend any strained or troubled relationships. It is customary for family, friends and even business associates to reach out to each other around Norooz and attempt to address, remedy, and heal any tension, hurt or bad feelings. This is a time when it’s possible to persuade to reconcile those who are estranged or chagrined with each other. A happy ending is not guaranteed, but the point is to make a good faith attempt to leave all negativity behind and to start the new year with solh va safa (peace and serenity) and on as positive a note as possible. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but this aspect of Norooz sounds similar in intent to the tradition of forgiveness of Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days of judaism.)
I think of it as spring cleaning the heart.
No’navari Kardan | Literally: “making things new”
In a very similar spirit to cleaning and organizing the house – in tune with the spring and renewal theme of the fete – the idea of no ‘navari is to start filling the house with pretty new things and delightful aromas. In the weeks leading up to norooz it is customary to fill the house with sweet-smelling and cheerful flowers such as hyacinth and daffodiles, and to start making or purchasing batches of Persian sweets for Norooz.
It is also a time one may indulge in making pleasant and necessary purchases for the household. Such as refurbishing curtains or buying new pots and pants. Things like that. Which I guess may also signify abundance and positive thinking and high hopes for the year ahead.
Lebass ‘eh Eid | New Head-to-toe Outfit for the Persian New Year
The house, household and personal relationships are not the only things getting spick and span; a pat on the back; and a new glossy lease on life.
Every member of the household also from the baby to the granny gets a new head-to-toe outfit: everything from socks to shoes and coat and even the unmentionable undies! This is called lebasseh eid (clothes for the fête) and while they may be purchased months in advance, the items are strictly reserved to be worn for the first time only for Norooz and not a day earlier.
Did va Bazdid | Visiting and hosting family and friends
The two weeks of celebrating Norooz are spent in a dizzying round of did va bazdid (literally “visiting and returning visits”) of all of one’s extended family and friends. One also opens one’s house and in turn receives family and friends. In the Iranian culture, the elderly are treated with utmost deference and formal respect, so the protocol is that the elders of the family sit tight and hold court and receive the younger family members who come to call on them. During these visits, best wishes and pleasantries and gifts to the children (usually crisp bills or maybe shiny gold coins) are exchanged; much sweets and tea and fruit and ajeel are consumed, chit chat takes place, and then one ups and leaves to make yet another round to another house on the list.
This is what happened when I was growing up in Iran. A new custom though I’ve heard is that people take off and run for the hills, I mean, fun holiday destinations, and dispense with this entire aspect! Whether this is good or bad, I have my personal opinion, but ultimately, change is inevitable and part of life and what is new today becomes an ancient custom in the span of the next thousand years. So that in the year 5000 it is conceivable that a blogger may wax poetic about the delightful ancient Persian custom of Iranians going on lovely family holidays for the two weeks of Norooz!
Remember the Norooz custom of purchasing a new year outfit that I mentioned earlier? Lebass ‘eh eid is what people wear to make their did va bazdid – these ritualized rounds of visits.
Chaharshanbeh Suri | Often translated as Red Wednesday
On the last Wednesday (chaharshanbeh) of the year, every neighborhood makes a few dainty bonfires, lined up in a row. Kids and grownups alike line up and jump over the fire. While jumping, one is supposed to address the fire and chant: Your red for me and my yellow for you.(سرخی تو از من زردی من از تو) Symbolism: releasing one’s yellow weakness into the burning fire and in turn soliciting robust vigor and energy from the flaming red fire! Again, this is what I recall but I’ve heard this tradition has morphed more into a rather boisterous display of neighborhood fireworks.
The zoroastrian roots of the charshanbeh suri tradition are fairly evident. As a kid, this was my one of my favorite, most exciting things about Norooz. I have not experienced it since we left because … well, because fire marshalls would be called if replicating chaharshanbeh suri here in the U.S! I’ve heard – if not seen with mine own eyes – tales of huge bonfires on the beach in Los Angeles aka Tehrangeles.
Haft Seen – Literally “Seven S” – the Persian New Year’s Beautiful Tableau Vivant
For Norooz a table is set with 7 things the names of which start with the letter “S” in Persian. (Check this earlier post for itemized listing of what’s in a haft seen spread and their symbolic significance.) This spread is called Haft Seen — literally Seven S’s – and it is the primary symbol, icon and cornerstone of the Persian New Year, much like the Christmas tree and the menorah are symbols, respectively, of Christmas and Hannukah.
I like to call Haft Seen the Persian New Year’s “still life tableau” because when all is said and done and all the 7 “S” sounding items and the other traditional items are gathered, what you have is a charming little spread that pleases the eyes and delights the soul. I LOVE everything about haft seen! From coloring eggs, to making sabzeh by sprouting seeds, to the goldfish swimming in a bowl, to the glint of gold of the coins, to the delicious sweets on the table. I will admit, however; that while I like looking at hyacinths, I find their smell overbearing. They are certainly pretty to look at though.
In every household, it is around the Haft Seen spread that the family gathers waiting for winter to end and to celebrate the moment spring begins with hugs and kisses; exchange of best wishes, and the gifting of presents to the younger members of household; and eating sweets to ensure having a sweet year ahead. And it is around the haft seen as well that everyone gathers when visitors, paying their did va bazdid, arrive to offer their best wishes and respects.
It is a beautiful tradition!
Sizdah Behdar | Or “Begone 13!” – A picnic marking the end of Norooz
And finally, on the 13th day of Norooz, all good things must come to an end.
This day is called sizdah behdar and literally means “getting away from 13”, with the number 13 having the same “bad luck” rep in the Persian culture as it suffers from in the West. On this day, one is supposed to go on a picnic, somewhere scenic, ideally near a river or stream. There, one is supposed to eat and play and have fun and make merry and at some point to take the sabzeh that one spent weeks coddling and coaxing into sprouting for Norooz and take it and throw it away, ideally in a body of water.
The act of dispensing with the green sprout in this manner is supposed to symbolize ridding oneself of all bad omens and bad vibes. There is also a quaint custom that a young girl wishing to marry may tie and make knots with the blades of grass, while making a chant to be married by next year’s sizdah bedar!
The 14th day of the new year: it’s back to normal life. The holiday is over. Bummer! Two weeks isn’t enough? Let me tell you, when I was a kid, two weeks was NOT enough. Not at all.
Enough, however, of a post that was meant to be a quickie and turned into a longie! I warn you that I’ll be sprinkling a lot of Norooz cheer in the coming weeks.
Have a beautiful and happy weekend! Think: spring!