Before I begin this post, it’s important to explain what Nowruz actually is.
Eyd-e Nowruz or New Year is the biggest festival in the Persian calendar. It’s the start of the season of new growth, the beginning of spring and is celebrated at the equinox on the 20th or 21st of March each year. Nowruz is the traditional high point of the year, a family festival with gift-giving, painted eggs and 13 days of holidays.You may remember my previous post about Chaharchanbe Suri which is celebrated on the evening of the Tuesday before Nowruz. This is when festivities reach their first peak.
The real climax of the festivities, however, is Saat-e tahvil, the hour of the equinox. This is when the whole family gathers to watch the countdown on TV, and when the magic moment arrives, they throw their arms around each other and say ‘Eyd-e shoma mobarak’ and ‘Sal-e no mobarak’ – which means best wishes for the new year.
Now before new year, I was lucky to meet Gayle of ethical clothing company, Rusks & Rebels at a get-together of the Northumberland Mumpreneurs recently and it gave me an idea. Gayle creates a fantastic range of personalised items, for babies up to children of 12. I asked her if she would be able to design a very special ‘My First Nowruz’ T-shirt for Cyrus. She was more than happy to help and I got a proof of the design the next day. I was delighted and ordered straight away.
Gayle managed to turn the T-shirt around in only a couple of days for us and hand-delivered it – which was brilliant because we’d gone to London for a few days to be with family. We call Cyrus – bol bol – which in Farsi means nightingale – because of the high-pitched happy noises he makes, so it made sense that the T-shirt was chirpy in its design.
I stocked up on my Norooz items (and shirini/cake) at Viona Patisserie in Uxbridge Road, Ealing, London before we returned to the North East. The store was packed with Persian families who all had the same idea.
Yesterday we celebrated Nowruz at 2pm (the exact moment when the earth passes the vernal equinox) with family in Iran via video link. We also sent phone messages to extended family to wish them all the best for the new year which in Iran is 1396 and the year of the rooster (khorus). Given the distance between us, it makes it even more important to share cultural events like Nowruz from afar.
I made sabzeh polow (saffron rice with dill) accompanied by fried salmon and a herb omelette. It’s a meal that symbolises bounty (rice), growth (dill), freshness (fish) and birth (eggs).
We then headed out for a party at our friends’ house where they had their own haft-seen spread, traditional music and a pot of ash-e reshteh (noodle soup) to ensure that there will always be food in the kitchen throughout the coming year.
I mentioned in my previous post how I was growing sabzeh too in preparation for my haft-seen. Our conservatory has now been festively decorated with the sofreh-ye haft seen. This translates to the ‘tablecloth with the seven S’s’). These are seven items that all begin with the letter ‘s’: sabzi (greens, usually a little ‘meadow’ of wheat, barley, lentil-sprouts sown in a bowl about two weeks before Nowruz). This symbolises growth and nature.
Senjet (dried lotus fruit); for wisdom and love
Sib (apple); for health
Sekkeh (newly minted coins); for wealth
Seer (garlic); for contentment
Sirkeh (vinegar); for satisfaction
Samanu (wheat pudding); for power and bravery
Nowadays, Persians do not stop at these seven items, but also add much more. Everything is carefully arranged in front of a mirror (Ayyeneh) and two candlesticks (Sham’dan) (to reflect the light and joy of the new year), with a copy of the Koran, or the poet Ferdousi’s Shahnameh, or Hafez’s Divan placed on a nearby table. A bowl with goldfish is often included. Although these are called mahi, so do not begin with the letter s, the goldfish are there as a reminder of the mythical giant kara fish, which dwells in the Vourukasha Sea and fends off all evil beings in the depths with its eyes.
Everything on the Sofreh-ye-haft seen table bears a deeper significance: growth, health, wealth, protection from all evil, and all the good and beautiful things that people hope for in life. Painted eggs also play an important part; they are a symbol of fertility, as they have been throughout the world since ancient times.
A colourful haft-seen spread in a shop in Iran
You will notice that there is a little black figure with a hat among our haft-seen spread, this represents Haji Firooz. In Iran, you’ll find people dressing up as Haji Firooz and singing and dancing through the streets with tambourines, spreading good cheer and news of the coming year. They wear bright red satin outfits and have blackened faces to represent fire.
The days that follow are made up of family visits and the exchange of hospitality, with food and meals naturally playing a central role. People also try to get away on holiday. On the 13th day after Norooz, the last day of the holiday, NO ONE is left at home. On the pretext that the number 13 brings bad luck, no one should be in the house that day. Instead Persians head outdoors for a picnic – Seezdah Beedar.
Many believe that the devil is attracted to the tray of herbs, which by this point has started to turn yellow. It must be taken far from home and ceremoniously cast along with the devil into running water in the countryside. The passing of the old year is then complete and plans for the new year are made.
Persians love picnics and the amount we take with us almost defies description. A large tablecloth, towels and paper serviettes, plates, cutlery, glasses, baskets and cool-boxes, pots containing delicacies of all kinds, pickled cucumbers, bread and candy, a barbeque and much more. We all settle down to eat and chat, putting aside all our cares and enjoying ourselves.
I find new year in Iran fascinating and each year I learn something new. Over the years, my haft-seen spread has become bigger and better. This year I learned how samanu is traditionally made. If you want to find out more, click here. Eating it apparently helps your hair grow! I’m really looking forward to passing all the knowledge I learn on to young Cyrus when he’s a bit bigger.