Nowruz: A Reminder to Renew Ourselves

Not very many people in America cared about the first day of spring on March 20. The day was acknowledged more in a functional or practical way, if at all, and everything was just the same—except maybe it was time to put bulky winter clothes away or start planning a summer vacation.

This past Monday at 3am, though, was arguably the most revered moment in the Iranian year.

Nowruz, the Persian new year holiday, goes back thousands of years in Iranian history as a time to celebrate and appreciate life with recipes, music, and family. The exquisitely simple thing about this holiday is that it asks only one thing — for people to have hope.

Celebrating the spring solstice, Nowruz lasts 13 days and is based in the Zoroastrian tradition, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. Those who still practice abide by three main tenets: good thoughts, good deeds, good words. While Nowruz has religious roots, it’s defined more by the culture and heritage of many nations who were under the Persian empire, explaining why it’s celebrated in about 15 different countries.

A group celebrates before Nowruz officially begins. Photo courtesy of CBC News
A group celebrates before Nowruz officially begins. Photo courtesy of CBC News

Before the new year starts, a ceremony is performed called Chahar Shanbe Soori where people jump over small bonfires in order to cleanse before the new year. In Zoroastrian practice, the sun/fire was considered God, so nowadays as people hop over the fire, others chant, “Take away my yellow face (meaning sickness) from last year and give the red (meaning vitality) to start the new year.”

After the actual equinox though, Thunderbird professor Dr. Mansour Javidan explains that relatives visit each other during the two week holiday in order of age, starting with the oldest in accordance with tradition. People go to the eldest’s home first and eat sweets, drink tea and listen to others speak of their optimism for the new year. As the year renews, all the relationships are renewed with people spending time together and giving each other eydi (gifts).

Older people are expected to give gifts to everyone, and it’s typical for them to have stacks of brand new bills on hand, ready to hand them out to the people they see. Wealthier people offer gold coins to their family and friends who visit.

Sogol Homayoun, the Thunderbird Assistant Director of Global Recruitment and Admissions, describes that in every home there’s also haft sin, a bright display of seven symbolic items that start with an ‘s’ and are meant to bring health, wealth, growth, and love into the new year:

Haft sin at the Tokmechin household. Photo courtesy of Maz Tokmehchin
Haft sin at the Tokmechin household. Photo courtesy of Maz Tokmehchin

Sabze – سبزه : greenery; wheat, barley, or lentil sprouts grown in a dish

Samanu – سمنو : a sweet pudding made from germinated wheat

Senjed – سنجد : the dried fruit of the oleaster tree

Sir – سیر : garlic

Sib – سیب : apples

Somāq – سماق : somac berries

Sonbol – سنبل : hyacinth

This along with the traditional Caspian white fish and rice (sabzi polo) prepared exclusively for the first lunch on Nowruz are Homayoun’s favorite parts of the holiday.

For Professor Javidan, this is an emotional and positive period for the country. Though he hasn’t lived in Iran for decades, he has clear memories of the holiday as a child and teenager in Iran: “Everything about that period is full of energy and full of anticipation, and on the streets you see waves of people shopping and getting sweets. There’s a lot of excitement in the air.”

Growing up in Iran, Maziar “Maz” Tokmehchin’s (MGM ’17) grandfather had a large ranch that the family would go to celebrate the first few days of Nowruz. His family hiked, swam, and naturally, cousins would mischievously compare who got the most eydi. Most importantly, the family entered the new year with the people who matter most to them.

As Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani put it, Tokmehchin sees that the best part about Nowruz is how it puts all the American holidays into one. Similar to Christmas and Hanukkah, they exchange gifts on Nowruz, they paint eggs like Easter, and they go door-to-door for treats like Halloween.

Maz's family celebrates Nowruz in Iran. Photo courtesy of Maz Tokmehchin
Maz’s family celebrating Nowruz in Iran in the ’90s. Photo courtesy of Maz Tokmehchin

When Tokmehchin was 11 years old, his family moved to the U.S., and he became more accustomed to also celebrating the new year on December 31. Fifteen years later, each holiday has its own meaning to him: “New Years in December is a big party that’s celebrated more around the world, but in my heart, Nowruz has a special place—because that’s my culture, that’s where I come from, and that’s what I knew growing up.”

But as to be expected, it’s especially difficult to feel excited for a celebration that falls during a time when people still have deadlines, dentist appointments, exams, and soccer practice. It’s harder to stay with traditions when work and life in other countries don’t allow for you to keep up with them in the same way.

While Iran allows for a pause during this time of year to connect with family and friends, this is more challenging in other places around the world. Despite these obstacles, Tokmehchin also says, “The beautiful thing about this holiday is that wherever you are, and I’ve lived in a few countries, people get together regardless of their circumstances or where they live. They keep the tradition alive. It goes back a long time, and it’s embedded in us. I think that’s what keeps the Persian culture strong.”

With there being nine more days to celebrate, find others who have grown up observing Nowruz, and ask about what the holiday means for them. Perhaps try baklava or chickpea cookies from the Caspian Food Market. And on April 1, gather friends for Sizdah Bedar, another new year tradition, to picnic for the last day of Nowruz. During a time of divisive headlines, be part of something Persians all across the world cherish and hold dear.

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