Like other Iranian families around the world, Iranian-Americans in San Diego are getting busy with their preparations for “Norooz”, the Iranian New Year. In harmony with the rebirth of nature, the Iranian New Year starts on the first day of spring. Here in San Diego, like other Iranian-Americans elsewhere, we start our gift giving and celebrations early on and carry them on for over two weeks! It is Fiesta Time!
Norooz ceremonies are symbolic representations of two ancient concepts - the End and the Rebirth; or Good and Evil. The celebrations involve several steps starting three to four weeks early. First comes “Khooneh-Tekooni”, literally meaning shaking the house and doing a major spring cleaning. We get new clothes, bake pastries and germinate seeds as sign of renewal. The ceremonial cloth is set up in each household. Troubadours, referred to as Haji Firuz, disguise themselves with makeup and wear brightly colored outfits. They used to parade through the streets as in carnivals; singing and dancing with tambourines, playing kettle drums and trumpets, and spreading good cheers and the news of the coming new year.
Then comes “Charshanbeh-soori”, celebrated on the last Wednesday eve of the year. It is the last attempt at destroying the negative energy of the past year. Bonfires are lit in public places and people leap over the flames. They shout: Give me your beautiful red color, and take away my sickly pallor! This is symbolic of giving their yellowness (ills of life, or the past year) to the fire and taking on the redness (life’s energy) from it. Kids in Iran love Charshanbeh-soori, always trying to outdo one another on building the biggest bonfire and surviving the jump. Burned hair and eyelashes would thus occur, as would fire cracker related injuries.
A 2nd ritual of that evening is called “Ghashogh-zani”, or spoon-banging, where people stroll down the street and knock on people’s doors asking for treats. This too is a competition among neighborhood kids to see who collects the most. To unfamiliar onlookers, it seems like Trick-or-Threat rituals of the Halloween. Indeed, Halloween is a Celtic variation of this night. In order to make wishes come true, it is customary to prepare special foods and distribute them on this night. Noodle Soup a filled Persian delight, and mixture of seven dried nuts and fruits, pistachios, roasted chic peas, almond, hazelnuts, figs, apricots, and raisins.
Another ritual of that evening is “Fal Gush”, in which someone makes a wish and stands in a corner, at an intersection, on a terrace or behind a wall, listening to the conversations of passersby’s. That person will know his fortune when he overhears conversation of a passerby. Kids find this pretty boring and fruitless. Overall, Charshanbeh-soori is one of the most fun celebrations of Iranian children.
After Charshanbeh-soori comes New Year’s eve dinner and the New Year’s day celebration, both of which are spent with family. On New Year’s day everyone is supposed to visit the eldest in the family and receive some gift, usually coins or new bills. The richer the family the more lavish the gifts but usually the gift giving is a symbolic gesture more about the act of giving than the content of the gift.
A few days prior to the Norooz, a special cover called “Haft-Seen” is spread on to a Persian carpet or on a table in every Persian household for the family to gather around when the New Year arrives. There is no exception for the Iranian-Americans in San Diego! This ceremonial table is called cloth of seven dishes, each one beginning with the Persian letter Sinn (or “S” in English). The number seven has been sacred in Iran since the ancient times, and the seven dishes stand for the seven angelic heralds of life-rebirth, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, patience, and beauty. The symbolic dishes consist of:
1) “Sabzeh” or sprouts, usually wheat or lentil representing rebirth. 2) “Samanu” is a pudding in which common wheat sprouts are transformed and given new life as a sweet, creamy pudding and represents the ultimate sophistication of Persian cooking. 3) “Seeb” means apple and represents health and beauty. 4) “Senjed” the sweet, dry fruit of the Lotus tree, represents love. It has been said that when lotus tree is in full bloom, its fragrance and its fruit make people fall in love and become oblivious to all else. 5) “Seer” which is garlic in Persian, represents medicine. 6) “Somaq” sumac berries, represent the color of sunrise; with the appearance of the sun Good conquers Evil. 7) “Serkeh” or vinegar, represents age and patience.
To reconfirm all hopes and wishes expressed by the traditional foods, other elements and symbols are also on the “sofreh” (table cloth). A few coins are placed on the sofreh to represent prosperity and wealth; a basket of painted eggs represent fertility; a Seville orange floating in a bowl of water represents the earth floating in space; a goldfish in the bowl represents life and the end of astral year-picas; a flask of rose water known for its magical cleansing power is also included. A brazier is setup nearby for burning wild rue, a sacred herb whose smoldering fumes ward off evil spirits. A pot of flowering hyacinth or narcissus is also set on the table cloth, along with a mirror which represents the images and reflections of Creation as we celebrate anew the ancient Persian traditions and beliefs that creation took place on the first day of spring. Finally, two candlesticks are placed on either side of the mirror, holding a flickering candle for each child in the family. The candles represent enlightenment and happiness.
This is not all. After New Year’s day, come thirteen days of celebration during which the schools are closed. People visit friends and family, wishing them a happy and prosperous New Year. When I was growing up most families would go out of town and not really visit anybody. Not everything was rosy about Norooz. Some teachers had the bad habit of assigning homework to be completed over the holidays. It was kind of distasteful as it was impossible to do homework over vacation, and foremost, it seems contrary to the spirit of the New Year.
The New Year celebrations conclude on the thirteenth day of the year, or “Sizdeh-bedar”. This is a day of mass picnicing. On Sizdeh-bedar, the entire family packs up an incredible amount of food, tea, sweets. The family also takes backgammon, cards, musical instruments, as well as football, volleyball, badminton, etc. to a campsite. The last fun-filled day of the celebrations is spent together with the family and friends before heading back to work and school the next day.
As Iranian-Americans in San Diego, or elsewhere, we still perform most of these rituals during the Iranian New Year. Certainly the food consumption and gifts have not decreased a bit.
Ramin Moshiri, President of the Association of Iranian American Professionals (AIAP). He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org