I have the pleasure of working with people from all over the world. In a German class I teach I might have course participants from ten different corners of the world with as many languages and cultural backgrounds. Learning is quite often mutual in these classrooms.
When we started the lesson on March 20th with me asking the students what date it was and what was so special about it, I received different answers. Most said that it was the start of spring, but one woman originally from Afghanistan told us it was her beginning of a new year called Nowruz.
So at the exact time as spring officially starts, people growing up with the Persian culture celebrate their new year. This year, it was exactly on March 20th at 5:15:23 pm MEZ. That means, the beginning of the Persian new year changes every year as does the beginning of spring.
Maryam, a friend of mine from Iran I taught German quite a while ago, kindly let me in on the traditions around Nowruz. I was warmheartedly welcomed in their home and served lovely black tea with a hint of fresh mint and traditional specialities in what looks beautifully Iranian.
I now love to share with you what I learnt on that afternoon.
Nowruz is celebrated for thirteen days in a row while still everybody is also working everyday. The family members normally gather at the parents‘ house at the time of the actual Nowruz. If this is not possible for some reasons, e. g. family members living abroad, then phone calls are made to every member of the family to wish a happy and healthy Nowruz. All of this happens no matter whether Nowruz is at a time during the day or in the middle of the night.
Traditions begin in the old year, however. In the night to the last Wednesday of the old year (called Charshanbe soori) people meet to make a fire and jump over it to let go of old and bad things of the ending year. Also, houses are neatly cleaned and furniture rearranged.
Then every house has a so called haft-sin. It is a table or designated area in the house where a display of objects starting with the letter „s“ in Farsi – the mothertongue of Persians – are decoratively put. Haft-sin means „Seven S”. There can be more than that, but it should have at least seven things starting with s. Some are not to be missed and most of the things should be eatable.
Maryam had two meaningful table cloths underneath. Both are handmade and represent an old tradition in Iran. The upper cloth is from the grandmother of her husband and boasts some strong colours of Nowruz: red, green and blue (see above and in the head image of this post). It was produced in Kerman, a city and region in Iran famous for its carpets. Here is a nice anecdote that has to do with Kerman carpets. As they are especially valuable when they are old and a bit worn there is a saying in Iran told to women who are not so young anymore: „You are like a Kerman carpet!“ This is to say, you may have signs of age, but you are more valuable now than when you were young.
The other table cloth is called Termeh. It is made from wool and of course handwoven. The design, a floral motif, is typical Persian and can be seen and found everywhere in Iran. Its origin are in this region. The pattern is called Boteh or Buta and also found its way to the western world where it is known as paisley.
Now let’s look at the haft-sin and the seven or more objects displayed here:
1. Sib means apples in English. They are at the center and stand for health in the new year. As many apples as you have family members are placed. Parents, siblings, husband and wife, respectively, children, family–in law, nephews, grandparents. Health is the most important, so sib is a must item.
2. Sabze is wheat grass that is best grown by oneself and should be in its full size on Nowruz – so planning ahead is important. It symbolises the rebirth and circle of nature. A red ribbon around it is to organise the grass. And here you have the strong red and green again.
3. Serkeh is vinegar and is traditionally put on the haft-sin in a silver or copper goblet. Since it takes a while to produce vinegar, it stands for patience.
4. Samanu is a kind of eatable spread also made with wheat. This time wheat seedlings are cooked for two days and what remains is a sweet brown paste you can eat just like that. I tried it and for me it perfectly goes on a piece of bread or with some vanilla ice cream. Iranians as I was told just eat it from a jar with a spoon. Samanu brings sweetness to the new year.
5. Sonbol is a sign of spring on the sofreh (table top) of haft-sin. They are hyacinths in English and these flowers have their origins in countries of the Middle East. Sonbol are not only a symbol of spring, but also of beauty.
6. Senjed is another product of nature. Also called the Persian or Russian olive it really looks like an olive but comes in a dried version, that is why the colour is a dark red to brown. You can eat it, but the taste is different from an Italian, Greek or Spanish olive. Senjed symbolizes love as people believe that you will fall in love from smelling the flowers when sitting under this tree. You see the dried fruits in the image above behind the coloured eggs.
7. Sumac is a ground spice with a dark red colour. It represents the colour before sunrise in spring and as such stands for the sun, light, and life.
8. Sir or seer is garlic and as in many other cultures it is here to protect from bad energy and guard the house.
9. Sekkeh are coins lying on wheat or rice in an uneven number and shall bring wealth.
Then there are more items on haft-sin without seen (s) in the beginning:
10. Tokhme morgh meaning “Egg of chicken”. Fertility in the new year is their role on Nowruz.
11. Ketab means book and any kind of book is fine to go on the haft-sin. Maryam went for Iranian poetry, a book called Divan-e Hafez. Ketab is a symbol for wisdom and knowledge.
12. Aab – water. A bowl of water is next to the mirror in order to enlarge its effect to bring lightness to life in Nowruz. Since life should be moving, it is best to have some movement in the water. Apparently, this can easily be achieved by putting some oranges into the water. (I will try this.)
13. Ayeneh, the mirror. It has to be on haft-sin as you need to see the whole sofreh (table top) and I felt it made the haft-sin really stand out in the living room as it caught my eye all the time.
14. Last but not least, sham (candles) illuminate the haft-sin. You can put as many as you like as long as it still looks nice. They make wishes come true.
Haft-sin stays for thirteen days. On the last day – the 13th day called Sizda bedar – Persians go to nature and hand the Sabze (wheat grass) over to a river or stream in order for the bad omen that comes with the number 13 to go away and to give something back to nature. This happened on Monday April 2, 2018.
Very interesting, isn’t it? I soaked up what I heard and am grateful for what I learn about other cultures even when not travelling. I especially love the idea of starting a new year at the same time as spring begins. For me, this really means a new beginning as nature awakens and the changes I see and feel are mind-boggling. In December, when I celebrated new year so far, nothing really changes except for the date. It is still in the middle of the dark and cold winter season regardless of it being December 31st or January 1st.
I am honestly thinking about changing my habits and starting my new year in March from now on.
Thank you for your interest today and mamnun Maryam for giving me the chance to learn something new and sharing it here!
Are you in to learn more about Persians and their culture in a funny satirical way from an Iranian? Then I recommend you watch the TedxSummit and other videos on YouTube from Maz Jobrani. His way is a delight, from my point of view.