Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Spring holidays tend to be particularly symbolic, tied to pagan traditions and rooted to the earth. Spring cleaning. Hope. Renewal. New life. Fertility. Freedom. Feasts and celebrations.

Growing up in LA, which has a huge Persian community, I somehow wasn't exposed to the biggest Persian communal holiday Noruz, even though I had several Persian friends. Noruz is an ancient Persian celebration of the spring equinox. I was struck by the elaborate beauty of this 13 day long celebration. The symbols of Noruz are particularly poetic: mirrors, grass, gold fish and eggs.

Wheat or lentil representing new growth is grown in a flat dish a few days before the New Year and is called Sabzeh (green shoots). Decorated with colorful ribbons, it is kept until Sizdah beh dar, the 13th day of the New Year, and then disposed outdoors. A few live gold fish (the most easily obtainable animal) are placed in a fish bowl. In the old days they would be returned to the riverbanks, but today most people will keep them. Mirrors are placed on the spread with lit candles as a symbol of fire.

Zoroastrians today place the lit candle in front of the mirror to increase the reflection of light. Mirrors were significant items in Zoroastrian art and architecture, and still are an integral part of most Iranian celebrations including weddings. They are extensively referred to in Iranian mystical literature as well and represent self-reflection. All Iranian burial shrines are still extensively decorated with mirrors, a popular decorative style of ancient times. Light is regarded as sacred by the Zoroastrians and the use of mirrors multiplies the reflection of light.

Wine was always present on the Haft Seen spread. Since the Muslim conquest, it has been replaced by vinegar because alcohol is banned in Islam. Egg, a universal symbol of fertility corresponding to Sepanta Armaiti, or mother earth, is still present. The eggs are hard-boiled and are traditionally colored in red, green or yellow, colors favored by Zoroastrians. Recently following the Easter Egg tradition, any color is used and they are elaborately decorated. The eggs are offered to children as treats.

Fresh garlic is used to warn off bad omen. This is a modern introduction. There is no evidence that it was used in this context before. However the ancient Iranians would grow seven different herbs for the New Year and garlic might have been one of them. Samano a thick brownish paste is present today. It is a nutritious meal and could have been part of the feasts. It is also possible that it has replaced Haoma, a scared herbal mix known for its healing properties. It was a major cult on its own with many rituals and ceremonies. The cult is still performed by the Zoroastrians today, but is abandoned by other Iranians. Coins symbolizing wealth and prosperity, fruits and special sweets and baked goods are also in the Haft Seen.

All kinds of food and delicacies are prepared with tea, drinks, fruits, bread, cheese and fresh herbs. Wealthy Iranians will spend the day in country homes. The occasion is a communal one and all close relatives and friends will participate. Wheat or barley shoots (Sabzeh) grown especially for the New Year are discarded in nature on this day. The picnic ends with the setting of the sun. The occasion has no religious significance and is celebrated by all. With the more modern Iranians there is music and dancing while most people will play games and sports. It is also believed that unwed girls can wish for a husband by going into the fields and tying a knot between green shoots, symbolizing a marital bond.

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