Nowruz Mobarak!

This is a day late for many Persian speakers, but right on time for many others. Nowruz (نوروز) is the first day of the new year on the Iranian calendar, also known as the Solar Hijri calendar. It is fixed to the vernal equinox as determined by astronomical observation for the Iranian Standard Time zone (GMT+3.5), and because it’s marked by astronomical observation rather than fixed date, it may fall on either March 20 or March 21 in any given year, and it is observed on different days in different places (March 21 in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, but March 20-24 in Iran where it is a week-long festival). It is a compound word combining نو (now, not pronounced like our “now,” but rather like the word “no” with a w tacked on the end), meaning “new”, and روز (rūz), which in modern Persian means “day,” but which actually derives from the same Indo-European root as the Latin lux and thus the English “light.”

The celebration of Nowruz hearkens back to ancient Persia, predating the arrival of Islam by as much as a millennium, if not more (the UN General Assembly in 2010 recognized March 21 as the “International Day of Nowruz” and declared that it has been celebrated for over 3000 years, which would put it 1600-1700 years before Iran was conquered by the Arabs), and there are a number of theories/myths/legends about how the holiday came into being. Mary Boyce, a scholar on the history of Zoroastrianism, “surmised” that the holiday was so important in ancient Iran that it must have been founded by Zoroaster himself, but it’s not clear to me (and I’m no Zoroastrian expert to be sure) that she offered any evidence to support that argument. The Persian epic Shahnameh (شاهنامه) identifies the founder of the holiday as Jamshid (جمشید), fourth ruler of the mythical Pishdadian Dynasty that ruled mankind at Creation and for some time after.

It’s not clear that the holiday was originally meant to symbolize the beginning of a new year; in the Shahnameh, Jamshid declares the holiday simply to celebrate the fact that his people have survived a particularly grueling winter through his wise governance (in other words, the holiday was meant to aggrandize Jamshid). Under the Achaemenid Dynasty (mid-1st millennium BCE until they were removed from power by Alexander) the holiday does seem to have been about aggrandizing the ruler, as it was customary for minor kings (شاه, shah) of the nations under the Achaemenid Empire to bring gifts to the Achaemenid Emperor, or “King of Kings” (شاهنشاه, shahanshah) on Nowruz. It was one of only a couple of pre-Islamic holidays to survive the Islamic conquest of Iran in any universal form (other pre-Islamic holidays are still celebrated, but in Zoroastrian communities only), at first more informally, but it had a resurgence as an official holiday when autonomous Islamic Persianate dynasties began cropping up in the 9th and 10th centuries CE.

Today Nowruz is celebrated in any place where significant numbers of Persian speakers live, but officially it is a holiday in Iran (the Khomeini government tried to do away with it after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with no success), Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and several former-Soviet Central Asian republics. There are a number of customs that are observed: a vigorous “spring cleaning” of the house is undertaken in the weeks prior to the holiday; Chaharshanbe Suri (چهارشنبه سوری), celebrated the Wednesday before Nowruz, when people build bonfires in the streets and may take turns jumping over them to welcome the victory of the fire/light of spring over the dark of winter, and when children go trick-or-treating; and the setting of a هفت سین (Haft Sin, or “seven s’s”) table, which is covered with seven items that begin with the letter س (corresponding to our “s”), which traditionally are:

  • سبزه (sabzah): grass sprouts (wheat, mung bean, etc.) growing in a dish
  • سهنو (samanū): a sweet pudding made from wheat germ
  • سنجد (sanjad, or more often transliterated as “senjed”): the dried fruit of the oleaster tree
  • سیر (sīr): garlic
  • سیب (sīb): apple
  • سماق (sumāq): sumac berries
  • سرکه (sarkah, “serkeh”): vinegar

“Nowruz Mobarak” (“Blessed New Year”) is the traditional holiday greeting, or in Persian نوروز مبارک.