The first day of spring is cause for a celebration, especially after the winter many of us have been having. But it’s hard to top the 13-day festivities of the Persian New Year, Nowruz.
Nowruz, or “new day” in Persian, is an ancient festival that marks the beginning of spring and celebrates the rebirth of nature. And naturally, it has a lot to do with fresh, green foods just beginning to poke out of the ground that remind us winter is not, in fact, eternal.
Nowruz begins at the stroke of the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator. This year it came early in the morning of March 20. When the equinox comes, millions of families of Iranian descent gather around a ceremonial table known as the haftseen. (Think colorful, elaborate Day Of The Dead-type altars meet a mashup of Easter and Passover traditions.) Young and old hold hands and count down to the New Year together and cheer Eide Shoma Mobarak, or Happy New Year!
The haftseen table is a relatively recent addition to Nowruz – a folksy tradition with murky beginnings. “We do not even find this spread mentioned in the chronicles of travelers to Iran up to the modern times,” says Ahmad Sadri, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College and an expert on ancient Persia.
Haftseen “seems to have come into vogue only in the last century, owing to publicity in the media,” according to Columbia University’s extensive entry in its Encyclopedia Iranica.
And yet, “its essential items perfectly afford reasonable explanation as the reflections of the pastoral and sedentary conditions of ancient Iranians and of their beliefs.”
In every home, the haftseen table is decorated with seven items – since seven is considered a lucky number. Each item begins with the letter sin (s) in Persian, and each item is a symbol of spring and renewal, including:
Seeb (apple), representing beauty
Seer (garlic), representing good health
Serkeh (vinegar), representing patience
Sonbol (hyacinth), representing spring
Samanu (sweet pudding), representing fertility
Sabzeh (sprouts), representing rebirth
Sekeh (coins), representing prosperity
Other words beginning with the letter “s” can also be used, such as the spice sumac, its brilliant gold color representing the sunrise, or senjed, a dried fruit of the Lotus tree, representing love.
Some families even add a little more flair. Haftseen tables can also include a Quran, a book of poetry, a mirror and candles (reflecting into the future), a goldfish swimming in a bowl (representing life), painted eggs (representing fertility), and all kinds of sweets and fruits.
For many families, Nowruz means preparing special dishes like smoked fish and herbed rice. Speaking to Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Iranian-American actress Nazanin Boniadi, of the hit TV shows Scandal and Homeland, says food plays an important part in her Nowruz celebrations.
“I love the sabzi polo mahi, which is fish and herbed rice,” she told Martin in 2014. “It’s a massive tradition in our house to have that.”
Chef and author Donia Bijan, who was born in Iran, told Martin in 2013 that all that chopping of parsley, cilantro and dill for that dish was the hardest part. “It certainly teaches you that good cooking does require a lot of patience,” she says.
Other dishes include soup with noodles “that symbolize unraveling the difficulties in the year to come,” as NPR commentator Bonny Wolf has reported, and of course, eggs represent fertility in practically every culture. One personal favorite is karaf, an exquisite celery, mint, dried lime and beef stew served over white rice.
Painted eggs are often used to represent fertility. Courtesy of Hamid Rahmanian
Nowruz is also a time for spring cleaning, buying new clothes, visiting friends and relatives and renewing bonds. On the 13th day of the New Year, the celebrations finally end. Since the 13th is an unlucky day, entire families go on picnics and take with them the sprouts (sabzeh) from the haftseen table. The sabzeh is thrown into flowing water, symbolizing a “letting go” of the misfortunes of the coming year.
In 2010, the United Nations first recognized International Nowruz Day, as it is celebrated in countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Albania, India, Iran, and Turkey. Here in the U.S., the day is celebrated across many diaspora communities from New York to Chicago, Florida to Texas.