Nowruz; literally "new day” is the name of the Iranian New Year also known as the Persian New Year, which is celebrated worldwide by various ethno-linguistic groups as the beginning of the New Year.
Although having Iranian and religious Zoroastrian origins, Nowruz has been celebrated by people from diverse ethno-linguistic communities. It has been celebrated for over 3,000 years in Western Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Black Sea Basin, and the Balkans. It is a secular holiday for most celebrants that is enjoyed by people of several different faiths, but remains a holy day for Zoroastrians.
Nowruz is the day of the vernal equinox, and marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. It marks the first day of the first month (Farvardin) in the Iranian calendar. It usually occurs on March 21 or the previous or following day, depending on where it is observed. The moment the sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is calculated exactly every year, and families gather together to observe the rituals.
People start getting ready for Nowruz about three weeks before the actual vernal equinox. Pretty much everyone goes into serious spring-cleaning mode, ridding their homes of any unnecessary clutter and lingering grime that’s settled in over the past year so they can start fresh. At this time of year in Iran, you’re likely to see countless Persian rugs hanging outside, where their owners can beat the dust out of them.
In these same weeks leading up to the actual day, families also set aside a space for a “haft-seen,” or a collection of items that symbolize a different hope for the new year. While some families add their own variations to the haft-seen (more on those in a bit), there are seven things that are always included:
- Sabzeh: Some kind of sprout or grass that will continue to grow in the weeks leading up to the holiday, for rebirth and renewal
- Senjed: Dried fruit, ideally a sweet fruit from a lotus tree, for love
- Sib: Apples, for beauty and health
- Seer: Garlic, for medicine and taking care of oneself
- Samanu: A sweet pudding, for wealth and fertility
- Serkeh: Vinegar, for the patience and wisdom that comes with aging
- Sumac: A Persian spice made from crushed sour red berries, for the sunrise of a new day
While these seven S items are the foundation of a haft-seen (which literally means “seven S’s”), the tradition has evolved to the point where there are several other things you can include. For example, when I was growing up, my family’s haft-seens always included a mirror symbolizing reflection, colored eggs for fertility, coins for prosperity, and, if we were feeling ambitious, a live goldfish for new life (an ironic association in my house, where pretty much every goldfish we brought home died immediately).
Once you have the seven cornerstones set, the haft-seen is yours to customize. Muslim families will sometimes include a Quran. Sometimes a place of honor will go to a volume of poetry by Hafez, one of Iran’s most beloved poets.
Once the day of Nowruz arrives, it kicks off a 13-day celebration of dinners, family visits, and reflections on the year ahead. On the 13th day, you take the sabzeh that’s been growing in the haft-seen to whatever natural body of running water you can find and let it float away, to release the old and usher in the New Year.