Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Nowruz, New Year in Iran (well, some parts, anyway)
Nowruz, the Iranian New Year Wed, 19 Mar 2008 22:22:22 By Patricia Khashayar, MD., Press TV, Tehran The Iranian New Year, Nowruz, which coincides with the astronomical Vernal Equinox Day or the first day of spring, falls on March 21. While the term Nowruz first appeared in Persian records in the second century CE, there is evidence suggesting that the celebrations may be much older. Tradition takes Nowruz as far back as the time of King Jamshid when the life of Indo-Iranian settlers depended on farming and spring, when nature awakened once again and flowers bloomed. Legend has it that after defeating the demons (daevas), King Jamshid had them lift his throne into the sky. His subjects who were in awe of his might showered him with gifts and the auspicious day was named Nowruz and recognized as the first day of the year. In Zoroastrian cosmology, after Ahura Mazda created the Universe he assigned six holy immortals (Amesha Spenta) as protectors of the world: Khashtra (Sharivar), the protector of the sky; Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht) the protector of fire; Vahu Manah (Bahman) the protector of animals, Haurvatat (Khordad) the protector of water, Spenta Armaiti (Esphand) the protector of earth and Ameratat (Amurdad or Mordad) the protector of vegetation. Ahura Mazda himself became the protector of humans and the Holy Fire. The architect of this cosmology, Zoroaster, introduced many feasts, festivals and rituals to honor the seven creations, the holy immortals and Ahura Mazda. Nowruz, the most elaborate one, was to celebrate Ahura Mazda and the Holy Fire at the spring equinox. The Nowruz festival as celebrated today dates back to the Sassanid era. Sassanid celebrations began ten days prior to the New Year when it was believed that the guardian angels (Farvahars) and the spirits of the departed came down to visit humans on earth. To welcome these spirits from the netherworld, a major spring-cleaning along with feasts and celebrations were carried out. At night, bonfires were lit on rooftops to inform the spirits and angels that humans were ready to receive them. This festival was called Suri. Nowadays, although the festival has changed name to Chahar-Shanbeh Souri, it is still held on the eve of the last Wednesday of the year and is the celebration of the triumph of light over the darkness. Iranians believed they could pass through this unlucky night, to the arrival of spring's longer days, with the help of fire and light, the symbols of good. On this night, bonfires are lit in public, and while leaping over the flames, any remaining paleness and evil (pain and sickness) is cleansed with the warmth and vibrancy of fire (strength and health). The tradition is also to show gratitude for the previous year's health and happiness. Children banging on pots and pans with spoons go trick or treating from door to door, a ritual known as Gashog-Zani (spoon beating). A mixture of seven dried nuts known as Ajil-e-Moshkel Gosha (problem-solving nuts) and fruits are distributed in hopes of making wishes come true. Gereh-goshai, is another tradition, in which individuals make a knot in the corner of a handkerchief or garment and ask the first passerby to untie it, symbolically unwinding twisted fate. Kuze Shekastan, is another ritual in which Iranians believed that by breaking the earthen jars used in the previous year, they could rid themselves of their prior misfortunes. Haji Firuz is the traditional herald of Nowruz; he dances through the streets to the sound of tambourines and trumpets and spreads the news of the coming New Year. [Note: is this related to the much later European tradition of the "dancing fool?"] Nowruz preparation begins early in March with khane tekani (house cleaning). This tradition stems from the Zoroastrian concern with cleanliness as a means to keep Evil away. As Nowruz is a feast of hope and renewal, Iranians greet the New Year freshly showered and garbed in new clothes. An important part of the New Year rituals is setting the Haft Seen, a table containing seven items starting with the letter 'S', which each represent one of the seven creations and their holy protectors. The seven items of the Haft Seen are: - Sabzeh or Freshly grown greens The color green was the national and religious color of Persians; therefore, wheat, barley or lentil sprouts were grown in a dish to symbolize rebirth and prosperity. Sabzeh also stands for Hoomet (good thoughts), Hookht (good words) and Hooveresht (good deeds). In royal palaces twenty days before the New Year, cereal grains (wheat, oat, rice, beans, lentils, millets, lima beans, peas, and sesame seeds) were grown on twelve (the number of holy months) clay pillars. The good growth of each grain was considered the sign of abundance in the coming year. - Samanoo Samanoo, a pudding made of germinating wheat or malt mixed with flour and brought to a consistency, is a representation of the excellence of Persian cuisine. It was believed that consuming the sprouts fertilized by Farvahars would bring strength and fertility in the years to come. Some maintain that Samanoo replaced Haoma, a scared herbal drink known for its healing properties. - Senjed or Jujube Jujube, the Lotus tree berry, represents love. It was said that when the lotus tree is in full bloom, its fruit and fragrance make people fall madly in love. The tree symbolizes shelter and security and senjed is placed on the New Year table to motivate nature's rebirth. - Seeb or Apple In Iranian folktales, medicine men often split an apple in halves, giving one to each spouse to prevent infertility. Apple also represents beauty and health. - Seer or Garlic Fresh garlic is used to ward off evil omens and represents medicine (as it lowers blood pressure) and peace. - Sumac Sumac is said to be the spice of life. Sumac berries bring to mind the color of sunrise and with the appearance of the sun, Good conquers Evil. - Serkeh or vinegar Vinegar is a symbol of fermentation, having originated as grapes and undergone many transformations. It symbolizes a tasty preservation and represents age and patience. Apart from the seven main Haft Seen items, other elements and symbols are sometimes placed on the table: - Bowl of fire: Wild rue and other sacred herbs are burnt in a bowl of fire to ward off evil spirits. - Holy Book: Each family places a Holy Book on the table; many also put the book of poems by the celebrated Iranian poet Hafez. - Water and Bread: Water and bread are also placed as traditional symbols and sustainers of life. - Milk: In Iran, fresh milk was considered sacred as food for the newly born. - Eggs: Painted eggs are a symbol of fertility corresponding to Sepanta Armaiti, or mother earth. The eggshell symbolizes the sky and the boundaries of the universe. - Mirror: Mystical Iranian literature extensively refers to mirrors as a representation of self-reflection. The word Ayneh (mirror) comes from Advenak, one of the aiding forces in the creation of man; therefore, Persians believed mirrors represent the images and reflections of creation. - Candlestick: Iranians believed Ahriman (the devil) could not enter wherever there was light; therefore, candles came to represent enlightenment and happiness and a flickering candle was placed for each child in the family around the bowl of fire or mirror. - Fish: The last solar month, Esfand, is in the Pisces period and on the eve of the New Year, it gives its place to Aries; hence, goldfish represent an image of the changing of the year. Fish are also one of the symbols of Anahita, the goddess of water and fertility. - Coins: Coins represent prosperity and wealth. They are also a symbol of Shahrivar, the Amshaspand which represents metals. - Sour Oranges: A sour orange placed in a bowl of water symbolizes the revolving Earth or the twelve months of the year. - Hyacinth: A pot of flowering hyacinth or narcissus heralds the rebirth of nature and the coming of spring with its strong fragrance. For the ancient Iranians, Nowruz was a celebration of life; for modern Iranians, Nowruz is a feast of renewal and change; a time to visit relatives, friends and pay respect to older family members. Family members dressed in their best, sit around the Haft Seen table listening to the head of the family recite the Nowruz prayers and eagerly await the announcement of the arrival of spring. Once the New Year is announced, people exchange presents called Eydi, sweets are passed around and wild rue is burned to keep the evil eye away. Families then eat Sabzi Polo Mahi a special rice dish cooked with fresh herbs and served with fish. The first few days following the New Year are spent visiting relatives and friends. The sixth day of Nowruz is of great importance to Zoroastrians whom celebrate this day as the birthday of Zoroaster. The thirteenth day of the New Year festival is called Sizdah Bedar when families attend picnics or parties to avoid the bad luck associated with the number thirteen On this day, Sabzeh, which has symbolically collected all the sickness and bad luck, is thrown into running water. Iranians believe an individual's conduct in Nowruz will affect their lives throughout the year; therefore, they abstain from fights and disagreements to ensure a good year.