It’s Iranian New Year – Happy Nowruz!
March is my favourite month of the year. The cold cobwebs of winter are brushed aside; flowering buds begin appearing in nature, the days get noticeably longer and I get to celebrate my birthday, my mum’s birthday, and my parent’s wedding anniversary all in a matter of weeks. That means lots of occasions for cake, which always makes me happy. But the main reason I love March is that it is Nowruz, Iranian New Year, an ancient Zoroastrian tradition marking the end of winter and the beginning of the new year in the Persian calendar.
Zoroastrianism is the 3000-year-old religion of Iran, steeped in mythology and symbolism linked to the five elements of earth, fire, water, air. Even today, 35 years after the Islamic revolution, Nowruz remains the main cultural event in the Iranian calendar, celebrated with more vigor and ceremony amongst ordinary Iranians than Islamic festivals such as Eid.
Iranian New Year falls on the spring equinox, which this year takes place at 8.27pm (Tehran time) on 20th March and brings us into 1393 in the Persian calendar. All over Iran and across the world in the Iranian diaspora, families gather at this exact moment to mark the New Year together in front of the haft-seen table, an auspicious Nowruz altar. The haft-seen table is laid with seven objects beginning with the letter ‘S’ in Farsi. Each object symbolises a different element of good fortune that people would like to invite into their lives in the year ahead.
Each family has its own tradition for what they place on the haft-seen table but typical objects include; a mirror symbolising the field of possibilities, candles representing life and fire, an apple representing health, rose water representing cleanliness, eggs symbolising fertility, sprouting wheatgrass representing rebirth, vinegar representing wisdom, sum’ac representing the colour of the sunrise and a new dawn, gold coins representing wealth, garlic representing medicine, and hyacinths representing the sweet fragrance of the coming spring. Often a holy book such as the Qu’ran or a poetry book by the great Persian spiritual poet Hafiz is also included in the haft-seen table.
The days before Nowruz are all about purification, cleaning out the remnants of the year gone by and clearing space for the year ahead. Iranians typically embark on a massive spring-cleaning effort just before New Year, de-cluttering the house and getting their proverbial ships in order. It is customary to wear new clothes on the first day of the New Year so everyone buys new outfits too. Another ancient tradition I am totally down with.
Pre-Nowruz purification on a deeper level happens through the special fire ceremonies that take place on the last Tuesday before New Year, known as Char Shambe Soori. On this night, small bonfires are lit in people’s gardens or on the street and Iranians jump over the flames to ward away evil spirits and take vitality from the fire. As people jump it is customary to say ‘zarde ye man as to, sorkhe ye to as man’, which roughly translated means asking the fire to take away any of your sickness or yellow pallor and instead feed you health and its fiery red power. The fire photographs you see of people celebrating Char Shambe Soori on this page were taken by my photographer Sharzad Darafsheh two nights ago in Tehran.
I’m in Thailand at the moment, on a tropical beach, a long way from my parent’s home in the UK or my family’s home in Iran. But on Char ShambeSoori my partner and I made a small fire and jumped over it, chanting the Iranian fire verse and symbolically putting things in the fire we no longer wanted in our lives, invoking the transformative power of the flames. As for today, I’m just putting the finishing touches on my haft-seen table and I’m feeling very excited to see in the New Year. Having just launched this new project exploring Iranian culture and food I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this year will take it all.
So Happy Nowruz everybody, wishing you all the best for the year ahead. Tonight we’re going to party like its 1393!