Guiding the Ancestors Back
Noh Ruz, The Persian New Year
by Philip Walker
In Iran, the most important festival is the New Year, the vernal equinox on 21 March. Called Noh Ruz, it is a Zoroastrian (pre-Islamic) celebration.
Zoroastrianism became the state religion under the Sassanian Dynasty (AD 220-620). There are still some 30,000 Zoroastrians living in Iran, mostly around Isfahan, Yazd and Kerman. They are tolerated by the present government but do not have the same status as Muslims.
Noh Ruz is celebrated by most Persians, although at the height of Islamic fundamentalism (immediately after the Revolution) the authorities tried to suppress it.
Many of the features of the festival are aimed at bringing good luck and welcoming the spirits of ancestors back to earth. Small bonfires are lit in the streets on the last Wednesday of the old year (chaharshambeh suri), and people jump over the flames to bring luck for the following year. The bonfires were originally lit on the roofs of houses to guide the ancestors towards their homes. Noh Ruz celebrations last for 13 days and are a time for family and close friends to get together.
On New Year’s day, Persians wear new clothes and give new clothes and money to children. A display of symbolic items is made in people’s homes, which was called ‘haft shin’ (seven ‘Sh’s). When the festival was taken over by Islam it was changed to ‘haft sin’ (seven S’s).
The seven S’s displayed include seer (garlic), seeb (apple), serkeh (vinegar), samanu (a type of sweet made from wheat shoots), sombol (hyacinth), sekeh (a gold coin) and somagh (sumac). The centre piece is sabsi, a plate of sprouting green herbs (cress, wheat or lentils can be used). Other items on the table include a Koran, a mirror, a goldfish in a bowl, colored hard-boiled eggs and a candle.
The original Zoroastrian version included sharab (wine), shir (milk), shilooneh (jujube), shirini (sweets), sharbat (sherbet), shaam (candles), sabsi and the Avesta (the holy book).
The traditional food eaten for New Year is sabzi pollo (rice with herbs — literally, green rice) and mahi (fish). Ash reshte a delicious thick, warming soup made with pulses and noodles is also often served. Reshte (noodle) literally means threads; these are still commonly made at home rather than bought and there are many regional variations.
On the thirteenth day after New Year, called sizdah bedar, families leave their homes to go on a picnic. The picnic spot should preferably be near a stream; the sabsi from the haft sin is thrown into the stream for good luck. Grass is also knotted for good luck. Persian picnics are outstanding: people come well equipped with lots of mouth-watering cooked dishes including rice and hot ash. Carpets are spread out and men relax in their comfortable shalvar kurdi (kurdish trousers) while the women prepare the feast. In the days before the Revolution, girls would dance round the picnic.
For Persians living outside Iran, Noh Ruz is still the most important festival and is enthusiastically celebrated. Large parties are held in hotels with live music and dancing, as well as more intimate family gatherings.
Philip Walker is an enthusiast of Persian culture. He writes occasionally on food, dance and other aspects of Middle Eastern life. He was formerly an administrator for one of Britain’s leading international arts festivals.
Mr. Walker is married to Medea Mahdavi, who was born in Iran and moved to England as a teenager. She has been dancing for as long as she can remember — her first performance was on Persian TV at the age of six.