To wake in harmony, to rise humane: Noruz, the Persian New Year

March 16, 2012 - 6:40
Eminent Iranian anthropologist Mohammad Mirshokraei (1943) has over 40 years of experience in folklore, linguistics and anthropological research.  He was previously the director of the National Anthropological Researches and later the head of Iran’s Anthropology Research Center for over 18 years since the establishment of Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization in 1985. The prolific Iranian scholar has over 150 articles published inside and outside the country and 9 books on anthropology and culture to his credit. ‘Humans and Water in Iran’, ‘Anthropology and Museums’, 'Tea in Iranian Culture' and ‘The Language of Masuleh People’ are some of the titles of his published works. Mirshokraei is the editor in chief of Iran’s Cultural Heritage Research Center Journal and also a contributing editor to many other journals of culture, museum, history and art.
In an interview with Maryam Ala Amjadi he discusses the story of Noruz, the Persian New Year and its social and cultural aspects.
Below is the abridged version of the interview translated by the interviewer.
Maryam Ala Amjadi:  How old is the history of the Persian New Year, Noruz?
Mohammad Mirshokraei: Before anything, I would like to tell you that the story of Noruz is the story of our national identity and throughout history people of different nationalities have acknowledged this tradition and even made an effort to make it their own.
The origin of Noruz is the Iranian plateau and its surrounding lands. Historians have opined that over 18,000 years ago, in the last period of the ice age, climate change led to the emergence of distinct seasons in a way that summer became distinguishable from autumn and winter from spring. Not all regions have four distinct seasons, in fact, in some places there are only two seasons all the year round.  So when seasons became distinguishable in this region, it is axiomatic that the beginning of one or the end of another coincides with certain behaviors or rituals, the least of which is for instance, change of attire. The greatest seasonal shift happens with the advent of spring. The severe cold and dearth of winter comes to an end and nature is once again fully awake.  These changes caught the attention of humans. The climate becomes warmer and people can now resume activities they had suspended in winter. Even to this day, with the advent of spring, farmers start working on the field and herders bring out their cattle once again. Life becomes new with the newness of nature. Leafless trees of winter gradually begin to blossom. Shokoofeh-haa (blossoms) signify a new period, a new time, Noruz (literally, new day) and people celebrate it as an integral part of their daily life.  Therefore, Noruz developed as a result of the environmental conditions of this land. When people lived and practiced this celebration, it became a tradition over time and a part of our culture.  Noruz happened when people began to revere spring and revive their lives with the revival of nature. Gradually, elements of civilization were integrated into this custom and the culture of Noruz was shaped. The earliest evidence that we have of Noruz belongs to the Sumerians who migrated through Zagros Mountains to Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago and they took Noruz with them, just like Iranians today who take Noruz with them wherever they go.
MAA: Noruz and Yalda. Wherever in the world they are, Iranians somehow feel committed to these traditions.
MM: Yes, to all their traditions. Noruz is not incompatible with the principles of any religion. It is an independent tradition that is not in contrast with any race, ethnicity or belief system. This is why throughout the Iranian history; Noruz has been embraced by all linguistic, ethnic and ideological groups who have encountered Iran. They have been, influenced by and, of course, have also influenced Noruz in this encounter.

MAA: Why is Noruz specially celebrated for 13 days in Iran?
MM: Noruz is the most ancient New Year celebration in the world. It is also the world’s longest celebration of New Year. Its rituals begin almost a month before and continue for almost a month afterwards. Before Noruz, people buy new clothes and go through the ‘khaaneh tekaani’ ritual (literally, shaking the house, which means cleaning the house from the ceiling to the floor and making everything spick and span from the top to the bottom). They cook Samanu (a sweet pudding made from wheat germ - symbolizing affluence), an item on the Persian New Year spread. Then on New Year’s Day, there are specific rituals and then for a couple of days after that there is did va bazdid (literally, to see and see again, meaning to visit one another) and then on Sizdah be-dar (literally, thirteenth day out, the 13th day of the new month) people go out and share food and happiness. In some places, Noruz is celebrated for a shorter or longer time, for instance in Dezful for 14 days and in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, for 40 days.  The 13th day of Farvardin (the first month in the Iranian calendar) is associated with the rain deity known as ‘Tir’ (also the name of the first month of summer in the Iranian calendar) and perhaps this is why it has gained significance. On the 13th day after Noruz, people go out into the nature, they their share food and their happiness. There are also many outdoor Noruz games dedicated to this day. People go into the crowd to take their joy to another level.
MAA: What about the concept of Triskaidephobia (fear of the number 13)?
MM: Well, this is not a concept of our culture. It has come from the West.
Interviewer's note: Some people consider staying at home on the 13th day of the New Year unlucky.
MAA: That is interesting. So you mean 13 is not an unlucky number in Iranian culture?
MM:  No. In some countries there is still no 13th floor in some buildings or an airplane number 13. It has, of course, found its way into our culture as well.
MAA: Yes, in the older neighborhoods of Tehran, sometimes, the 13th house on the street was numbered as (12+1).
MM: But it is an imported concept, because if 13 was an unlucky number in Iranian culture, then we would not have so many other occasions for festivity which happen on the 13th or those which are associated with number 13.
MAA: Cleanliness is a principle greatly emphasized in Iranian culture, but why do people clean their homes, particularly and ritualistically before the New Year?
MM: In Iranian culture, the past and the present, seasonal cleaning is customary. In winter, the doors and windows are usually closed and the heat created via any system in the house creates a certain ambiance, sometimes there is soot, there is dust accumulated in the corners and the air becomes stuffy. So in order to change that ambiance and have fresh air in your room, you need to specially dust and clean it after winter and there is no better time for it than now, a little before the advent of spring.
MAA: What does the original Persian New Year spread, Softeh Haft Seen (literally, the seven “s” spread, symbolic items that begin with this letter) consist of?
MM: In our culture we have a lot of sofreh (Persian tablecloth material spread on the floor or table for daily food and various occasions) for everyday use and different rituals. Even the ordinary sofreh is revered; people say a prayer and ask for more blessings by the sofreh before and after they eat. Who begins to eat, who sits up and down the spread is also a part of this tradition. So, the sofreh (spread) for the occasion of Noruz is known as Sofre-ye Noruzi (the Noruz spread). It later gained the name of Haft Seen because of the items people placed on the sofreh in different regions, a custom that prevailed with the advent of mass media. The main original elements of the Noruz spread are items which are considered holy and symbolize affluence and prosperity in Persian culture: Water, sweets (happiness), sabzeh (literally, green or grass, wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish) Samanu, coin (wealth), egg (life), a mirror, a lamp (or lit candles), a holy book, the Quran, and sometimes bread (or the main staple food of families), also apple and pomegranate which are considered as fruits of heaven. All these items are associated with certain beliefs in Iranian culture. But cultural elements and their behavioral manifestations are never permanent and they change through time. The Haft Seen (the seven items beginning with the letter "s" in the Persian language) today consists of: sabzeh (green sprouts), seer (garlic), senjed (dried oleaster fruit), sib (apple), sonbol (hyacinth flowers), serkeh (vinegar) and sekkeh (coin).

MAA: Another item that is placed on the New Year spread is small goldfish in a fish bowl. What is the significance of this?
MM: Fish is sacred in Persian culture. All the qanats (a water management system developed by Iranians) of the desert region are full of fish and people do not look at them as edibles. It is even a folk belief that these fish have a Shaah (king), a big white fish. It was only in the recent decades that fish emerged as an item on the Noruz spread. Fish is the symbol of Nahid, the Persian deity of water. Nahid has many symbols, of which fish and pomegranate are the most recurrent. Even traditional Persian bowls have the image of fish painted or carved on them and this image can be found in our ancient and native handicrafts.
MAA: Is there any evidence as to when it actually emerged as an item on the Persian New Year spread?
MM: There is no specific date, but in the ‘Haft Seen’ painting by Hossein Ehya (1911-1992), who was a student of the renowned Iranian painter Kamalolmolk (1847-1940), there is no fish bowl.  But fish and fish imagery are a part of the Iranian art and culture.
MAA: What is the significance of Samanu (a sweet paste made from germinated wheat) on the New Year spread?
MM: Samanu is made of wheat, a staple food and can therefore replace bread on the Noruz spread. It is a sacred dish and it is prepared in other neighboring countries as well. It is cooked ritualistically while women sing songs for this occasion.  The idea is not to merely have items that begin with the letter, "s". The main thing is the sense happiness and the feeling of joy. In the ancient inscriptions from the Achaemenid Period over 2500 years ago, there is an invocation:
In the name of Ahuramazda who created the heavens, the earth, the people and joy for the people
It is interesting how after three material elements, the first abstract concept mentioned is ‘joy’, which is actually the essence of Iranian culture; this is why we have so many occasions for joy, so many festivals in Persian culture. Iran is, in fact, the land of festivals.
MAA: What happens in the moment of Tahvil-e Saal (literally, transformation of the year)?
MM: Tahvil-e Saal is that precise moment when the New Year occurs. It is the very first instant in the New Year. (The moment the sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is calculated exactly every year) Previously, the morning of the first day of Farvardin (21st of March) was considered as the beginning of Noruz, particularly in villages where dido baazdid (visiting each other, it is customary to visit elders first) began on the morning of the first day. It was only with the advent of mass media that all people were informed about the exact first moment of the New Year. When the New Year is announced, you hear music played on the streets. The Ashayer (nomad tribes) shoot guns. In religious places like Mashhad they play naghareh (a pair of two drums made of clay, one smaller than the other). In olden times, when there was no television or radio to announce the beginning of the New Year, villagers would put either a naaranj (bitter orange) or an apple in a bowl of water and place it on the Haft Seen spread. When the fruit in the water moved, they would acknowledge the beginning of the New Year.  This is related to a myth about a bull that holds the earth on its horns and when the bull shifts the earth from one horn to the other, the New Year occurs. At the precise moment of the New Year (Tuesday March 20, 2012, 08:44:27 AM) people sit around the spread to pray and wish one another a Happy Noruz.

MAA: What traditional games are played during Noruz?
MM: There are some traditional games that are specifically played during Noruz, the most famous of which is Tokhm-e Morgh Bazi (literally, the egg game). One of the items placed on the Persian New Year spread are colored eggs (eggs are hard boiled and then dyed), which were previously given to every child as an eydi (a festivity gift, particularly for Noruz). Nowadays, they give children sums of money. The egg game has two players. Each player beats one end of the painted egg against the other and the one who succeeds in breaking the egg, wins and the loser gives the broken egg to them. The one who collects the most number of eggs is the final winner.   This game is even popular in other countries. There are also some traditional games that are not specifically for Noruz but get due attention during this time, such as horse riding, particularly among the Ashayer (nomadic tribes) who have horse riding competitions on certain days of Noruz.  The height of all games is on the 13th day of the New Year when people go out in nature. Some games are introductory to Noruz like the dramatic play of Haji Firuz (the traditional harbinger of Noruz whose face is covered in soot. Clad in bright red clothes and a felt hat, he plays music and sings New Year songs on the streets). You know that another meaning of baazi (play, game) is 'acting' and ‘drama'. There are also dramatic games played during and towards the end of Noruz. One of the games played after the New Year until the last day of celebrations is Mir-e Noruzi.
MAA:  How is Mir-e Noruzi (King of Noruz) played?
MM: Mir-e Noruzi is, in fact, a temporary governor who governs the municipality for a few days. Usually individuals from the working class are chosen for this task. This temporary king, clad in official attire for the occasion, organizes an army and appoints assistants; in short he forms a government of his own and is given a lot of authority, and therefore the right to punish and reward people. In olden times, for instance, if a merchant sold goods for a price higher than the actual cost during Noruz, the Mir could publicly punish him for this. Sometimes the Mir would look at this game as an opportunity to punish his enemies.
MAA: Is this game still popular today?
MM: Not as much as it was in the old days. I have heard that it was played even last year in some villages of Kurdistan. Usually on the last day of his reign, the temporary king runs away and hides somewhere, because people could become vengeful as a result of his behavior during his reign. In northern Khorasan, this playful king is called Khaan-e Sizdah Roozeh (literally, the 13 days ruler). You can even find the trace of this game in the poetry of the Persian poet of the 14th century, Hafez:
I speak behind the curtains of metaphor, so come out of the bud like a flower
For the temporary king of Noruz has a verdict for but five days
MAA: Is there also a game particularly for women during Noruz?
MM: There is a similar traditional game for women. On some days during Noruz women become rulers for a short period and are given full authority as the monarch or queen of their villages. Also in northern Iran, the ancient and annual ritual of varf chal (or ‘Zan Shahi’, literally meaning the monarchical rule of women) is celebrated in Ordibehesht (the second month of spring, April 21-May 21). While the men of the village set out to gather frozen snow from the mountains and pour it into a well and keep it covered as their summer water source, women rule the village. Not even one male person can stay in the village on this day.
Interviewer’s note: In Bimorgh village near Gonabad of Khorasan Province, from the 9th day after the New Year until the 13th (29th March-2nd April) women rule the village and no man has the right to exit the house without their permission. Transgressors are punished by women. During this week, women spend the days out with their mothers, sisters, female family members and friends enjoying nature and horse-riding without being concerned about their household and motherly duties because all are taken care of by the men.
MAA: In your opinion, what does Noruz mean to Iranians today?
MM: Joy is a national and an integral element of our identity, because Persian festivals and traditions are a part of the Iranian identity. Therefore, even for the ordinary Iranian today, who may not be familiarized with such terms, Noruz is still a representation of the Iranian identity. We live with our identity. This is why if there are small children in the house, people make an extra effort to bring Noruz into their homes. Even the economy blooms during this period and going to the bazaar is like going to a gathering that has its own rituals.  This is why at Tahvil-e Saal time (the exact moment of the spring equinox, when the Persian New Year occurs) we try to keep all the lights on as we welcome Noruz. Also, there should be no trace of mourning or sadness in our hearts before Noruz. Therefore, even if in the last week of the year, someone passes away, it is recommended that no one should wear black on New Year's Day.  It is believed that the deceased are present in spirit with the family. If there is enmity, people should resolve issues and make peace and reconcile. In short, unity and solidarity of family and friends and of humans in general must be strengthened and preserved. This is identity, a part of your life; it is something that people do without any instructions.