IRANIAN NEW YEAR NO RUZ
By Massoume Price
No Ruz, new day or New Year as the Iranians call it, is a celebration of spring Equinox. It is the most cherished of all the Iranian festivals and is celebrated by all. This occasion has been renowned in one form or another by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. Sumerians, 3000BC, Babylonians, the ancient kingdom of Elam in Southern Persia and Akaddians in the second millennium BC, all celebrated this festival. What we have today as No Ruz with its’ uniquely Iranian characteristics has been celebrated for at least 3000 years and is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of Zoroastrian belief system of the Sassanian period.
The familiar concepts of Hell, Heaven, Resurrection, coming of the Messiah, individual and last judgment were for the first time incorporated into Zoroastrian belief system. They still exist in Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions. In order to understand No Ruz we have to know about Zoroastrian cosmology.
In their ancient text, ‘Bundahishn’ foundation of creation, it is said that The Lord of Wisdom (Ahura Mazda) residing in the eternal light was not God. He created all that was good and became God. The Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), residing in the eternal darkness created all that was evil and became the Hostile Spirit. Everything that produced life, protected and enriched it was regarded as good. This included all forces of nature beneficial to humans. Earth, waters, sky, animals, plants, justice, honesty, peace, health, beauty, joy and happiness were regarded as belonging to the good forces. All that threatened life and created disorder belonged to the hostile spirits.
The two worlds created did not have a material form but the essence of everything was present. The two existed side by side for three thousand years, but completely separate from each other. The next creation was the material world, created at seven different stages. The first creation was the sky, a big chunk of stone encompassing earth. The second creation was the first ocean at the bottom. Earth a big flat dish sitting on the ocean was the third. The next three creations were the prototypes of all life forms. The first plant, the first animal a bull and the first human Gayo-maretan (Kiomarth, both male and female. The seventh creation was fire and sun together. This world was thought to be round and flat, like a plate.
To protect his creations the Lord of Wisdom also created six holy immortals. These are personifications of the natural forces created. They are called ‘Amesha Spenta’ and there is one for each creation. The first three were male deities. Khashtra (Sharivar), the protector of sky, Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht) and Vahu Manah (Bahman) protected fire and animals. The other three were female deities. Haurvatat (Khordad) protected all waters, Spenta Armaiti (Esphand) protector of mother earth and Ameratat (Amurdad) supported all plant life. Ahura Mazda himself became the protector of all humans and the holy fire. The six immortals are the names of six of the months in the current Iranian calendar. This newly created world did not have a life cycle. The sun did not move. There were no days or nights and no seasons.
Once the material world was created the Hostile Spirit saw light, wanted it and attacked the good world. He crashed in through the sky, plunged down into the waters and then burst up through the center of the earth. The earth was shaken, broken and mountains appeared. The ocean was disturbed and rivers flowed. With the hostile spirits invading, help was needed.
The three prototypes of life were sacrificed. From the plant came the seeds of all plants. The bull produced all animals and from the human came the first male and female. The rest of the humanity was created from their union. With the triple sacrifices the cycle of life started. This was the beginning of time. Sun moved, there was day, night and seasons. This was called the first No Ruz, meaning new day and the beginning of the cycle of life. Iranians have celebrated this occasion for thousands of years. It starts at the beginning of spring and the seven creations are remembered and embraced. They are present at the Iranian New Year spread called Haft Sin. Originally seven symbols for each of the creations they are changed and modified but still present. The occasion is a very joyful one and is particularly loved by children.
The struggle between the good and evil continues for 12000 years. There are four periods, each for 3000 years. At the last phase several saviors come and the last one Saoshyant will save the world. When he comes there is resurrection, walking over the Chinvat Bridge (Sarat Bridge in Quran) and last judgement. We recognize this figure as Time Lord (Imam Zaman) in Iranian version of Shiite Islam.
Zoroaster (Zardosht) the architect of this cosmology introduced many feasts, festivals and rituals to pay homage to the seven creations, the holy immortals and Ahura Mazda. Seven were amongst the most important. They are known as Gahambars, feasts of obligation. The last and the most elaborate was No Ruz, celebrating the Lord of Wisdom and the holy fire at the time of spring equinox. The festival over the time incorporated other aspects of the religion such as the feast celebrating Fravashi.
Fravashi were another creation of the Lord of Wisdom to protect living beings. The etymology of this word is not clear. It might have derived from the same verbal root as Ham-vareti ‘Courage’. It was originally the departed soul of a hero to help and protect his descendants. They were conceived as female beings winged and inhabiting the air, through which, if satisfied by offerings, they would appear very swiftly to aid humans. They eventually became a very important part of the cult of ancestors and represented the soul of the dead returning to visit the living at the last night of the old year. Their return was celebrated in the feast of Hamaspathmaedaya. This feast eventually became part of the No Ruz celebrations. In modern Persian the fravashi are known as Fereshteh or angles and they still function as protectors of humans specially children. In popular culture the newborns by the virtue of their innocence are regarded as fereshteh. The first month in the Iranian calendar is also called Farvardin, which is related to the descent of Farevashi to earth.
The oldest archaeological record for No Ruz celebration comes from the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2500 years ago. They created the first major empire in the region and built Persepolis complex (Takhte Jamshid) in central Iran. This magnificent palace/temple complex was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 334 BC.
Achaemenians had four major residences one for each season. Persepolis was their spring residence and the site for celebrating the New Year. Stone carvings show the king seated on his throne receiving his subjects, governors and ambassadors from various nations under his control. They are presenting him with gifts and paying homage to him. We do not know too much about the details of the rituals. We do know that mornings were spent praying and performing other religious rituals. Later on during the day the guests would be entertained with feasts and celebrations.
We also know that the ritual of sacred marriage took place at this palace. An ancient and common ritual in Mesopotamia, the king would spend the first night of the New Year with a young virgin. There is no evidence that this was practiced later on and was part of the New Year rituals. What we have today as No Ruz goes back to the Sassanian period. They formed the last great Persian Empire before the advent of Islam. There are many references with respect to the celebration of No Ruz at this time in both Zoroastrian and Islamic literature. The Zoroastrian text Zadspram mentions that " a sense of renewal was now characteristic of No Ruz. New cloths were worn, food was of the new season. The day began with a mouthful of pure fresh milk and fresh cheese; all the kings of Persia took it as a blessing. The king in the morning ate white sugar with fresh Indian nuts". The same text mentions that it was the custom to sow seven seeds, to come up fresh and green on the holy day itself.
Sassanian started celebrations ten days prior to the New Year. They believed the guardian angels and spirits of the dead would come down to earth within these ten days to visit their human counter parts. A major spring-cleaning was carried out to welcome them with feasts and celebrations. Bon fires would be set on rooftops at night to indicate to the spirits and the angels that humans were ready to receive them. This was called Suri Festival.
Modern Iranians still carry out the spring-cleaning and celebrate ‘Chahar Shanbeh Suri’ (Wednesday Suri). Bon fires are made and all people will jump over the fire on the last Tuesday of the year. This is a purification rite and Iranians believe by going over the fire they will get rid of all their illnesses and misfortunes. This festival did not exist before Islam in this form and very likely is a combination of more than one ritual to make it last. ‘Chahar Shanbeh Suri’ will be discussed in more detail in the next section.
The ancient Zoroastrians would also celebrate the first five days of No Ruz, but it was the sixth day that was the most important of all. This day was called the Great No Ruz (No Ruz e bozorg) and is assumed to be the birthday of Zoroaster himself. Zoroastrians today still celebrate this day, but it has lost its significance for the rest of the Iranians. In Sassanian period the New Year would be celebrated for 21 days and on the 19th day there would be another major festival. Modern Iranians celebrate New Year for 13 days only.
A few days before No Ruz colorfully dressed male troubadours known as ‘Haji Firouz’ appear in public and announce the coming of the New Year. They are normally dressed in bright red or green and blacken their face. They carry a small percussion instrument called ‘dayereh zangy’. They sing and dance and recite popular songs about No Ruz. They are very ancient in origin. Biruni mentions Firouz as a spirit protector of dead and the figure very likely was part of the celebrations welcoming the dead ancestors, hence the black face. They are very popular and there are recorded tapes of amusing songs that normally accompany the figures. All dance groups outside the country are performing Haji Firouz shows during No Ruz celebrations.
It is customary for all to take a bath and cleanse themselves thoroughly before No Ruz. This is a purification rite but has lost its meaning with modern life. New garments are worn to emphasis newness and freshness, and this is very important since No Ruz is a feast of hope and renewal. Till twentieth century kings were expected to present their staff with new garments. Very expensive and elaborate garments indicated that the king favored the person. Soldiers, servants and slaves also received new summer and winter clothing at this time.
Families stay home and wait for the start of the New Year at the exact time the spring equinox starts. The time the New Year starts changes every year and is called ‘Tahvil’ (revolution) and the day is around 20th of March. The first few minutes are spent around an elaborately prepared spread with several items and objects known as ‘Haft Sin’ (seven ‘s’). More religious people will read or recite verses from their holy books just before the start of the New Year.
Once the New Year is announced (on the radio or TV) the younger members of the family will pay respect to the elders by wishing them a merry New Year and sometimes kissing their hands (a sign of ultimate respect). Relatives kiss and hug and presents (traditionally cash or coins) are exchanged. Sweets are offered to symbolically sweeten lives for the rest of the year. In fact the discovery of sugar is believed to have happened in No Ruz. The legendary king Jamshid discovered the sugar cane accidentally.
This happened in No Ruz, once he realized how tasty and sweet it is he ordered its production. It was also a tradition to give small sugar cones as presents to each other at this time. Small sugar cones were sold in Bazaars till very recently but they are going out of fashion. A small mirror is passed around rose water is sprinkled into the air and Espand a popular incense is burnt, to keep the evil eye away and to purify space. In more traditional families the father and the first born son will walk around the house with a lit candle and a small mirror to ritually bless the physical space. Lit candles on the spread are left to burn till they are finished. The first few days are spent visiting older members of the family, relatives and friends. Children receive presents; sweets and special meals are consumed. Traditionally the night before the New Year, most Iranians will have ‘Sabzi Polo Mahi’; rice cooked with fresh herbs served with smoked and freshly fried fish. ‘Kokou Sabzi’, a mixture of fresh herbs with eggs fried or baked is also served. The next day rice and noodles ‘Reshteh Polo’ will be consumed. Regional variations exist and very colorful feasts are prepared.
A major part of the New Year rituals is setting a special table with seven specific items present, Haft Sin (Haft chin, seven crops before Islam). In the ancient times seven items corresponded to each of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. Today they are changed and modified but some have kept their symbolism. All the seven items start with the letter ‘S’; this was not the order in ancient times. Zoroastrians today do not have the seven ‘S’ but they have the ritual of growing seven seeds. The ancient Iranians also grew seven seeds as a reminder that this is the seventh feast of the creation, while their sprouting into new growth symbolized the festival’s other aspect as a feast of resurrection and of eternal life to come.
Muslim historians mention that "for the king the site of growing barley was particularly deemed a blessing and the harvest of the green shoots was always accompanied with songs, music and mirth. In Vis u Ramin a Sassanian love story that has survived into medieval Persian, it is mentioned that "though the king’s banquet was splendid, others were no less so. Everyone had gone from his house to the country. From every garden, field and river a different variety of music charmed the ear".
In the ancient times twenty-five days before New Year, 12 large cylindrical shaped containers made from raw brick were erected in the city center. Different seeds were planted in each including wheat, barley, lentil, chickling and rice. On the sixth of Farvardin, the new growths were pulled out and scattered around with music songs and dancing. Biruni has mentioned this was done to estimate the growth of various seeds for the new season and to know how good a crop they could expect in the coming year. All people also used to grow seven seeds in their own homes. Iranians today still plant tulips, daisies, pansies and violets and many others depending on the location before No Ruz, but the tradition of growing seven seeds is not practiced.
Wheat or barley representing new growth and plant life is grown in a flat dish ten to twelve days before the New Year and is called ‘Sabzeh’ (meaning green shoots). Decorated with colorful ribbons it is kept till the last day and will be disposed off on ‘Seezdeh beh dar’, the 13th day while outdoors. Hyacinth is always present, it also represents plant life and it is also used for its perfume. A few red 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 till they die. There is no known symbolism attached to the color red, however red goldfish is the most abundant fish available. 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 the light. Mirrors were significant items in Zoroastrian symbolism art and architecture, and still are an integral part of most Iranian celebrations including marriage ceremony. They are used extensively 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 the ancient times. Light is regarded as sacred by the Zoroastrians and the use of mirrors multiplies the reflection of the light and at the same time represents sky or heavens. Wine was always present, after the Muslim conquest it has been replaced by vinegar (serkeh) since alcohol is banned in Islam.
Egg a universal symbol of fertility corresponding to the mother earth, Sepanta Armaiti is still present. The eggs are hard-boiled and traditionally are 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. Nineteenth century accounts mention the popular belief that if an egg is placed on a flat mirror, it will rotate by itself at the exact time of ‘Tahvil’. As children most Iranians have spent a great deal of time observing and putting the above hypothesis to test with no results!
The eggs are offered to children as treats. Fresh garlic (seer) 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 those. Samano a thick brownish paste is present today. It is a nutritious meal made with wheat and could have been part of the feasts. It is also possible that it has replaced Haoma. This is 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 the rest of the Iranians. Coins (sekeh) symbolizing wealth and prosperity, fruits and special sweets and baked goods are present as well. Fruits including apple (sib), a sour herb called somagh and a local small fruit known as senjed (oleaster tree) are present as well and complete the seven ‘S’. Religious people have a copy of their holy book present, while others use a copy of Shahnameh or poetry by Hafez.
For the ancient Iranians, No Ruz was a celebration of life. Forces of nature completely beyond them dominated people in those times. They formed a union with these forces to protect themselves. Through this union they created a balance and maintained the cosmic order Asha. Without it there would be chaos, the world of the Hostile Spirit (Ahriman). The Zoroastrians were and are required to have the same mind, the same voice and act the same way as their god the Lord of Wisdom.
They are expected to only think of good things, speak the good words and act the good deeds. This way they managed to maintain their balance and No Ruz was an occasion when life with all its’ glory was celebrated and cherished. With modern Iranians, No Ruz is a feast of renewal and freshness; a time to visit relatives, friends and to pay respect to the older members of the family clan. By thorough house cleaning the physical space is purified and merrymaking efforts create comfort and happiness becomes a celebration in itself. This is reminiscence of the ancient traditions when all forces of Joy were regarded as holy and venerated. Festivities will go on for 13 days and will end on the 13th day known as ‘Seezdeh beh dar’ which literally means; getting rid of the omen of the 13th day.
At the last day of the New Year celebrations, the 13th of the first month Farvardin, it is the universal custom in Iran to pass as many hours as possible outdoors. All people leave their homes to go to the parks or local plains for a very festive picnic. It is a must to spend this day in nature and the occasion is called ‘Seezdeh be dar’ (getting rid of the omen of the 13th day). It is generally believed that if people stay home something bad can happen.
This day was not celebrated in this manner before Islam and might be several rituals in one. It is possible that this day was devoted to the deity Tishtrya (Tir) protector of rain. In Zoroastrian calendar each day is named after a deity and this particular day in the month of Farvardin is named after Tishtrya. In the past there were outdoor festivities to pray to this Eyzad in hope of rain that was essential for agriculture. The act of throwing away the Sabzeh from Haft Sin into rivers and running waters on this day also indicates veneration for a water deity. The act symbolically represents an offering made to such a deity.
However Anahita was the goddess protector of running waters and not Tishtrya. It appears that at least part of the celebration is to pay respect to some water deity. Tishtrya/rain or Anahita/water are likely mixed together to preserve veneration for water deities in general. In ancient mythology the deity Vata the rain-bringer was associated with Harahvati Aredvi Sura, which means possessing waters (Anahita is a later assimilation of this deity). She personified a mythical river and all rivers flow out of this one. Clouds also took up rain from the same mythical river every year. Tishtrya goes to the river once per year in shape of a white stallion to fight the Demon of Dearth appearing in shape of a black stallion. After Trishtrya’s victory he rushes into the sea and water is hurried all over, and Vata snatches some for the clouds. The rest of the water is mixed with seeds of plants, which sprout as the rain falls. Ancient Iranian rituals quite often enacted their mythologies, waters were respected and many rites existed with respect to waters. It is very likely that several of these were combined to preserve some aspect of the ancient celebrations venerating waters. Till 19th century there was horse racing on this day which very likely represented the fight between the two stallions.
Iranians today regard this day as bad omen and believe that by going into the fields and parks they avoid the misfortunes that could befall on them. This notion is contrary to the Zoroastrian doctrine where all days were regarded as sacred and were named after venerated deities. According to Muslim’s popular belief the 13th day of the month is a day with unfortunate consequences (nahs in Islamic terminology), therefore Iranians could have combined the two. By going outdoors into the fields the ancient festivities were observed while the Islamic ideas are also incorporated into the occasion. Muslims today still have a prayer for rain called ‘namaz e baran’, which is used at times of prolonged drought. In year 2000 there were huge communal prayers organized in Iran with the said prayers during the water crisis in Iran.
All kinds of food and delicacies are prepared with tea, local drinks, fruits, bread, cheese and fresh herbs, noodle soup called ‘ash e reshteh’ and herbed rice with lamb (baghale polo & bareh) are favorites. The wealthy Iranians will spend the day in their country homes and estates, while the entire day will be spent in their gardens. The occasion is a communal one and all close relatives and friends will participate. Wheat or barley shoots (Sabzeh) that are grown especially for New Year and are kept throughout the festivities are discarded in nature mainly in running waters and small rivers at the end of the 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 marriage knot. The day should be spent joyfully with no quarrels or bad feelings and all things unpleasant are avoided to make sure nothing bad will happen.