Spring equinox signals celebration of Persian new year

Today marks not only the beginning of spring but also the start of a new year for the more than 300 million people around the world who celebrate Nowroz, the Persian holiday whose name translates as "new day" in English.

Millions of people around the world celebrate Nowroz

Nowroz is a holiday marking the start of the Persian new year. As part of the celebrations, families prepare a haft seen, a table set with specific items whose names begin with the letter 's' and which symbolize spring and the new year. (Sima Sahar Zehari)

March 20 marks not only the beginning of spring but also the start of a new year for the more than 300 million people around the world who celebrate Nowroz, the Persian holiday whose name translates as "new day" in English.

For those who celebrate the ancient tradition of Nowroz, the vernal equinox signifies not only the start of a season of bounty but also a time of renewed optimism. This year, it will also mark the start of the Persian year 1,393.

The seven 'S's

Nowroz celebrations must include a table set with haft seen, or the seven 'S's:

Sabzeh — wheat , barley, mung bean or lentil sprouts growing in a dish, symbolizing rebirth.

Samanu — sweet pudding made from wheat germ, symbolizing affluence.

Senjed — dried fruit, symbolizing love.

Sir — garlic, symbolizing medicine.

Sib — apples, symbolizing beauty and health.

Somaq — fruit, symbolizing the colour of the sunrise.

Sekeh — coins, symbolizing wealth or prosperity.

Another item is Serkeh (vinegar), symbolizing old-age and patience.

"It's a festival of renewal, and so it is about the optimism of a new year, the optimism of a fresh start, of rebirth.  I think that’s what it means to a lot of people," says Sima Sahar Zehari, a Toronto-based journalist for Shahrvand, North America's largest Farsi-language newspaper.

A major part of the Nowroz ritual is the setting of the haft seen table. Haft seen translate as seven 's's in English, and the haft seen table is set with seven specific items whose names start with the letter 's' (see sidebar).

Nowroz (which in English appears in a number of variations on this spelling depending on how the word is transliterated from the various Persian dialects) is a festival of great significance whose age-old history extends beyond just Persian culture and is celebrated in many countries of different religions and ethnicities.

"Nowadays, when we talk about Persian culture or Nowroz, in particular, most have a tendency to refer that to a country known as Iran," explains Iman Younesi, who works at the Iranian Cultural Centre in Ottawa. "But the truth is that Nowroz is widely celebrated in that area but also in parts of China, in parts of Africa, parts of Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Turkey, Syria and so many more places."

The tradition of celebrating Nowruz dates back 1,500 years to the reign of the mythical Persian King Jamshid.

Since then, the holiday has been embraced by different religions and nationalities, and traditions vary from culture to culture. However, the spirit of happiness, giving, family, harmony and friendship are common threads in the various observances of Nowroz.

Iranians consider Nowroz their biggest celebration of the year. For Iranians living abroad celebrations may not be as large but are no less important.

"Here in Canada, it's a reminder of what we had back home and all the big Nowruz celebrations there," said Sahand F. Shahrokhi, an Iranian-Canadian engineering student at Toronto's Ryerson University, by email. "It symbolizes the new and fresh start of everything in your life."

Persian families in Canada mark the occasion in different ways.

A haft seen prepared by Sima Sehar Zehari, a Toronto-based journalist with Shahrvand, North America's largest Farsi-language newspaper. (Sima Sahar Zehari)

"I have been away from my family for a few years now, so I usually hang out with friends with similar situation," says Mani Mobini, a photographer of Iranian origin living in Toronto, in an email. "We drink wine and eat cheese and pretend like we are doing something special, but it wouldn't be any different than any other day.

"However, if my parents are with me, we'll have a beautiful haft seen set up, and we'll gather around it before the new year. We hug and kiss and wish each other a great year ahead, followed by delicious home-made Persian food (my fav part)."

For Shahrokhi, family and food are also important parts of the holiday.

"The whole family gets together, and we sit around the sofre to wait for the sal tahvil  — basically, the new year's countdown," he said. "Often, we eat sabzi polo mahi, which is fish and rice. We also make sure to Skype with my grandparents to have them by our side, for the new year's countdown."

Hamid R. Tizhoosh, a professor of engineering at the University of Waterloo who grew up in Iran, associates the holiday with his childhood.

"When I was a little boy, may be seven, eight years old, my dad took me to a tailor to make me a suit for the very first time," he said. "This was a tradition back then. A week after that, I got my first suit: dark blue with spacious pockets. My mom still has it."