Thursday, April 28, 2011

Culture Share: Iran - Iranian New Year

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Jahan and Tahereh Alizadeh introduce Iranian New Year.

(also, No-rooz or norooz) is the name of the New Year in Iranian calendar and the corresponding traditional celebrations. Nowruz is also widely referred to as the Persian New Year.

Nowruz is celebrated and observed by Iranic peoples and the related cultural continent and has spread in many other parts of the world, including parts of Central Asia, Caucasus, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Crimea, and some groups in the Balkans.

Nowruz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in Iranian calendar. It is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which usually occurs on March 21 or the previous/following day depending on where it is observed.

With the passing of a year and the coming of another, Iranians set a traditional Nowruz table called "Sofreh haft-seen" with of seven (7) kinds of food. The number seven has been regarded as magical by Iranians since ancient times and is symbolic of heaven's highest angels. Each type of food has a name starting with the letter "sin" in Persian (Farsi) - similar to the letter "s" in English. They symbolize life, health, wealth, abundance, love, patience, and purity. The tables with their seven articles symbolize the triumph of good over evil. This belief dates back to antiquity but the practice is still very much alive.

The seven articles usually used are:
  1. Serkeh (vinegar)
  2. Seeb (apple)
  3. Seer (garlic)
  4. Senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree)
  5. Somaz (sumac)
  6. Samanu (creamy pudding made of wheat germ)
  7. Sabzeh (a dish of specially raised wheat or other seed sprouts).

Each of these items has special symbolic significance. Vinegar represents old age and patience. Apple symbolizes health and beauty. Garlic (which is considered medicinal) represents health. The dried fruit of the oleaster tree represents love. Sumac berries are the color of the sun and symbolize the victory of good over evil. The samanu pudding is regarded as holy, and the wheat/lentil sprouts represent rebirth.

There are other things you can place on the table which may not begin with letter 's' but have significance. For instance, a book symbolizing wisdom: Muslims place the Holy Qur'an and Zoroastrians put the Avesta to implore God's blessings; some people may also put poetry books from Iranian poets.

To reconfirm all hopes and wishes expressed by the traditional foods, other elements and symbols are also on the sofreh:

• a few coins placed on the sofreh represent prosperity and wealth;

• a basket of painted eggs represents fertility.

• a Seville orange floating in a bowl of water represents the earth floating in space.

• a goldfish in a bowl represents life and the end of astral year-picas.

• a flask of rose water known for its magical cleansing power, is also included on the tablecloth.

• Nearby is a brazier for burning wild rue ,a sacred herb whose smoldering fumes ward off evil spirits.

• A pot of flowering hyacinth or narcissus is also set on the sofreh.

• A mirror which represents the images and reflections of Creation as we celebrate anew the ancient Persian traditions and beliefs that creation took place on the first day of spring.

On either side of the mirror are two candlesticks holding a flickering candle for each child in the family. The candles represent enlightenment and happiness. A jar of water is sometimes added to symbolize purity and freshness, along with bread, a traditional symbol of the sustaining of life. It is also usual to see fresh milk, cheese, fruits, dates, pomegranates and coins on the New Year table.

Jahan and Tahereh Alizadeh live in California. Jahan came to the US from Iran in 1977, and Tahereh in 2001.

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