Spring equinox marks the start of Nowruz, Persian New Year

A primer on traditions and symbolism around this time celebrated by Canadians of so many backgrounds.

A primer on traditions and symbolism around this time celebrated by Canadians of so many backgrounds.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The vernal equinox, or the first day of spring, is the exact moment the sun crosses the celestial equator, equalizing the length of day and night exactly. While many Canadians may be rejoicing winter finally coming to an end, others from various ethnic communities and diverse faiths will be celebrating Nowruz, or the start of the Persian New Year.

"Nowruz, is celebrated from Tajikistan to parts of Pakistan to some of the Baltic region," says Iranian-Canadian Samira Mohyeddin. "There's all types of people who celebrate, but it really started out as a Zoroastrian tradition."   

Variations of the spelling of the holiday include Navroz, Norouz, Norooz, Nauruz, depending on where you are from, but Encyclopaedia Iranica and the international community — UNESCO and the United Nations  — prefer Nowruz.

"Nowruz, which literally translates to "new day" in English, falls on or around the vernal equinox, and it can vary by a day, year to year. Like any other new year celebration or holiday, the universal threads in the various observances of Nowruz are all about the spirit of happiness, giving, family, harmony and friendship."

The most common tradition of Nowruz is the ritual of setting the "haft seen" table.  In English that translates to the seven 's's; seven specific items whose names start with the letter 'seen' in Persian, and are symbolic of the celebratory time of the year are set out. The arrangement represents prosperity, health, productivity and happiness.

Though my family never had a formal "haft seen" table in our home growing up in Toronto, there were always reminders the new year was on its way and and we had so much to look forward to. We grew wheat, had a lot of dried fruits and nuts, ate fish (a sign of prosperity) and always had new outfits to wear.  Plus I can't forget the small envelopes stuffed with cash from my uncles! It was a day of celebration.

To learn more about the significance of the haft seen and other Nowruz traditions, I reached out to Iranian-Canadian, Samira Mohyeddin. Samira immigrated to Canada with her family in 1979 a time when there were only a handful of Iranian families living here, but not once has she missed ringing in the new year despite the traditional seasonings and items for celebrating scarcely found.

"When we first came here it was difficult for us to set this table. We had to get the products sent to us from Iran." (Her craving for a slice of home, inspired her and two of her siblings to eventually open Banu – an Iranian restaurant in Toronto, Ontario.)

Samira’s haft seen table at Banu.

Samira's ceremonial "haft seen" table includes these seven items:

"Sumac, which a lot of people use on their salads and stuff these day, it represents the colour of sunrise."

"Sombol...a hyacinth. A beautiful smelling plant."

"Sekeh, which is the Persian word for coins, and that represents prosperity."

"Seer, the Persian word for garlic." This represents good health.

"Sabzeh, that's the greens, usually something you grow yourself, such as sprouts." 

"Senjed, a jujube fruit from the oleander tree." The sweet dry-fruit represents love.

And Samira's final "s" is samanu, "a sweet pudding made from wheat germ, symbolizing affluence."

But also on her table you'll find, "sib, an apple, for beauty; serkeh or vinegar or sherab a red wine, " which she describes as symbolic of age, patience and wisdom. There will be "candles, which is keeping the light going" and "mirrors, so you can reflect on the year that's passed", plus a bowl of water where you'll find a Seville orange — she explains, "that orange represents the earth sort of shifting and moving around." And we shouldn't forget the goldfish, "it represents Pisces ending, if you believe in astrology... you go into Aries on March 21st", nor the "sacred book," which is personal to each family, reminds Samira.

A fresh start

"Khooneh Takouni" is a key part of Nowruz, "literally: shaking the house," jokes Samira. She describes it as a spring cleaning, but a thorough one! "This is like getting into the nitty gritty of the corners of the house or that you know that up top above the cupboard that you never see and that you'll never clean. It's about doing a complete cleansing of the house."

"Châhârshanbe Suri", Red Wednesday or Light Wednesday, happens on the eve of the last Wednesday before Nowruz. People make bonfires and jump over them! Samira says as you do this, you speak to the fire and say, "take my sickly yellow pallor and give me your fiery red colour."

"The idea behind it" she explains, "is that during winter you know you're sickly you've lost your colour, and the coming of spring sort of gives us back that vibrancy."

"If you see people jumping over fires," she adds, "don't get weirded out we're just celebrating the bonfires here."

You always wear something new on Nowruz says Samira.  Whether you are, "buying a new outfit or gifting somebody," but it's considered part of making a fresh start.

Family and feasting

Nowruz merely begins on the actual date of the vernal equinox and continues for 13 days, and so traditionally, the first day of spring launches a 13-day constant touring to relatives' homes. Samira says it all starts with visiting the oldest family member to "say thank you to them for everything they've done for you throughout the year."

And what is a New Year's celebration without a feast? Eating the traditional meal is, of course, also key to Nowruz. "Sabzi Polo Mahi," Samira insists is a must. "Dill, parsley, cilantro, chives and this is all chopped up really fairly and that and then it's cooked with basmati long grain rice ... served with saffron fried white fish." It's served with "Kuku Sabzi a Persian souffle or frittata made with fresh green herbs," she adds.

Sizdeh Be Dar – Throwing the sprouted greens

Day 13 marks the end of the celebrations and with that the throwing of the "sabzeh" or lentil or wheat sprouts into a river. Samira sees it as an opportunity to look ahead. "You take the sprout and you throw it into the river and you make a wish," says Samira.

Samira's been celebrating Nowruz here in Canada for the past 39 years, and she wouldn't have it any other way. "It really is a way to bring the community together no matter what your religion or background."

However you celebrate, and even if you don't, wishing Nowruz Pirouz to everyone! May the new year bring good fortune and abounding happiness to you and your families.

Nazima Walji is a producer at CBC News.

Samira Mohyeddin is co-owner of Banu restaurant in Toronto and a producer at CBC Radio One.


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