March 17, 2006
Iranian Americans Observe Persian New Year TraditionsNowruz festival marks beginning of spring
Washington – Some 2 million Iranian Americans – and other immigrants from neighboring countries that were once part of the Persian Empire – are celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 20 with rituals that go back thousands of years.
The rituals find their symbolic roots in Zoroastrianism and its dualistic struggle between the forces of good and evil, but with the advent of Islam 14 centuries ago, many of the traditions were modified.
A few days before the New Year, Persians observe a Zoroastrian festival known as Chahar Shanbeh Suri. The evening’s rituals include a symbolic purification by fire in which people jump over bonfires to rid themselves of illness and misfortune.
The New Year celebration then begins with the spring equinox, and the Nowruz festivities continue for 13 days.
Iranian community and student groups throughout the Untied States observe the traditional Persian holidays. Some groups refrain from participating in bonfire jumping because of the fire hazard, but all of them celebrate Nowruz with Persian music, dancing and a traditional dinner.
The traditional dinner at Nowruz features an herbed rice and fish dish called sabzi palau ba mahi accompanied by a hearty noodle soup. As always the meal is rounded out with sweet Persian pastries.
Families then greet the New Year in a purified state with a bath and a new set of clothes. The first few minutes of the New Year are spent around a traditional table setting known as the Haft Seen, or “Seven S” with seven items that begin with the letter “S.”
Haft Seen goes back to the pre-Islamic traditions of Zoroastrianism with each item representing one of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them.
Among the seven “S” items on the table is sabzeh, or green shoots, which are seven wheat or lentil seedlings symbolizing resurrection and the new life to come. Other “S” items may include samanu or sohan, sweets representing joy; sib, an apple representing health and beauty; senjed, lotus fruit symbolizing love; sir, garlic to ward off evil; sekhe, coins for prosperity; sonbal, a hyacinth flower; sumac, a Persian spice; or serkeh, vinegar.
The table setting also should include painted eggs to represent fertility, a goldfish bowl to represent the world’s oceans, and candles with reflecting mirrors to represent the eternal fire – the ultimate purifying symbol of Zoroastrianism. Some families also include a book of poetry by the Persian masters Hafez or Firdousi and a Quran, often used for recitations.
On the 13th day of the New Year, known as Sizdeh-be-dar, Iranians traditionally leave the cities for picnics in the countryside. The wheat or lentil sprouts are tossed into running water to symbolize the throwing away of everyday cares.
Nowruz ceremonies have become more diverse through the years, particularly as the traditions have spread through Afghan, Tajik, Uzbek, Azerbaijani, Kurdish and Parsee cultures, but all of those who observe the celebration today carry forward a timeless expression of ancient Persian culture.