My First Nowruz
Saturday, March 20th marked the beginning of spring, an indicator that new life peaks the horizon. The spring equinox coincided with the reset of the Zodiac calendar as well. This March gave the chance to acknowledge both of these milestones, but also introduced to me a third beginning: that of the 1400th Persian year.
Growing up Catholic in the American South, the beginning of spring meant the blooming of dogwoods, which signaled the coming of Easter. Easter meant I could eat candy again (what I usually gave up for Lent), and had lots of it to look forward to. Of course, Easter carried with it the Christian stories and Mass traditions to which I was accustomed. My dad took my siblings and I to confession, and Palm Sunday meant we got to go outside during Mass.
In the Catholic church, Easter Sunday represents both a beginning and an end. It brings an end to Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and signals a time of sacrifice. During Lent, most Catholics abstain from eating meat at least one day a week and “give up” additional pleasures in recognition of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness. It also brings the beginning of the liturgical season of Easter, which highlights the scripture passages that explore the Resurrection and what followed.
This celebration is familiar to me. Though it comes a little later, usually late March or early April, it’s the holiday I’ve learned to associate most with spring: bunnies and robin eggs, brightly patterned dresses. My father once told me that you can tell Easter is around the corner when the dogwoods bloom, their flowers forming tiny crosses.
As I grew older, the Easter holiday drifted away with my lapsing from Catholicism and Christianity. I didn’t attend church to celebrate or abstain from my favorite foods during the months approaching the holiday. I celebrated in other, more distant ways. Sometimes I’d wear floral dresses or bunny ears, but I thought less about salvation (though the spring did save me from the long nights of winter). The weather grew warmer and the sun brighter. We’d skip class to drink at the beach.
This year, I discovered a new occasion to celebrate: Nowruz. Nowruz is a traditional Iranian holiday that starts the New Year. My partner of almost two years is a first generation Iranian-American. This is the first year that we’ve lived close enough to his family to celebrate with them. He taught me the greeting phrase, “Aidé shomā mobarak,” which means "happy new year".
We set up a Haft-sin in our apartment. Haft-sin (pronounced with a long “e”— “seen”) functions as a celebratory alter to nature. Each item included symbolizes a greater concept such as patience, love, sunrise, the coming of spring, etc. The objects all begin with the Farsi letter closest to our “S” — the fifteenth letter of their alphabet: س. Haft means seven, as traditionally there are seven objects beginning with sin.
In researching the holiday, I found it difficult to trace the celebration back to one story or myth. Persian folklore has been passed down for much longer than the New Testament. The roots of Nowruz can be traced back around 5000 years. In the time of Mesopotamia, the spring festival in what is now Southern Iran celebrated the growth of crops, specifically barley. Sabzeh, which translates to grain, remains the first س of Haft-sin and symbolizes new growth. The Mesopotamian descendants in 2000 BC Babylon celebrated this festival on the first day of each Babylonian year. The tradition became specific to Iran with the incorporation of Zoroastrian mythology. Before the rise of Islam around the year 600 AD, Iran's primary religion was Zoroastrianism.
The Zoroastrian origin story closely resembles that of Christianity and Judaism, though Zoroastrians had more than one god (in fact they had seven). One story points to Nowruz as the celebration of the creation of light, and therefore the beginning of growth. Another foundational story is a mystical king’s defeat of winter. Either way: a holiday of warmth and new growth.
The other items of Haft-sin: a wheat pudding difficult to find in the US called Samanu, Persian olive (also difficult to find), vinegar, apple, garlic, and sumac. Ours includes the latter four, as well as sabzeh. Other traditional Haft-sin features include a book of wisdom (usually the Qur’an), a bowl of goldfish, hyacinths, coins, candles, a clock, mirrors. We used goldfish crackers in the place of live fish since I have a cat, and Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude in the place of a religious text. The hyacinths didn’t last long, but filled our apartment with their fresh spring smell for as long as they lived.
In contrast to the family responsibilities of Lent, Nowruz offered a new set of customs. Each season brings something new, surely. This spring showed me a new celebration, and allowed my knowledge of my partner’s culture to sprout like the barley. Plus, I got to spend the weekend eating Persian food, and enjoying the warmth of the spring sun.