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Novruz, The Fire of Spring

Cultural Events and Festivals

Hannah M.G. Shapero



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Noruz is the Iranian New Year, which is celebrated each year at the Spring Equinox, around March 21. It is the most important holiday in the Zoroastrian calendar, and brings with it a wealth of symbolism, history, myth, and joyous festivities. There are many layers of meaning to Noruz: astronomical, mythical, historical, ritual, and spiritual.

The word Noruz, in Persian, means "New Day," and the primal origin of the festival is in the universal rhythms of Earth and nature. In the "temperate" zones of the Northern Hemisphere, including Iran, the spring equinox signals the beginning of warmer weather and the growing season. In ancient Iran, it was the time to begin plowing fields and sowing seeds for crops. The equinox also marks the moment when, in the twenty-four hour round of the day, daylight begins to be longer than night.

From its earliest origins Zoroastrianism has honored these natural rhythms and cycles, both with agricultural festivals and with cosmic commemorations of yearly astronomical events. The world, fashioned by the Wise Lord, shows forth the divine in all aspects of nature, and that divine Immanence is honored in festivals like Noruz, in which divine symbolism is joined with a celebration of the renewal of the earth in spring.

In Zoroastrianism, light is the great symbol of God and Goodness, whether in the light of the sun or in the sacred fire. The Spring Equinox and the lengthening of the days is thus a symbol of the victory of Light over the cold and darkness of winter. Zoroastrianism has a rich heritage of mythological and astrological symbolism which illustrates the significance of Noruz. This symbolism is especially evident in the great palace and ritual center of Persepolis, built by the Achaemenid kings of the first great Persian Empire (c.600 BC-330 BC). Carved into the walls of Persepolis is the double symbol of the lion attacking the bull. These animals stand for the sun (lion) and the rain (bull, from the constellation of Taurus, ruling during the rainy season). They stand for summer (the lion, or Leo, ruling during the summer) vanquishing the bull, symbol of rains. Other carvings at Persepolis show processions of nobles and representatives of the various peoples of the Persian Empire bringing gifts to the Persian King, during the Noruz festival.

The beginning of spring, the renewal of the earth after barren winter, also symbolizes the "frasho-kereti," or the renewal of the whole world, which Zoroastrians believe will happen at the end of time, when all evil and darkness will be vanquished and all creation will be renewed and purified. Every spring, therefore, for Zoroastrians, is a preview of the cosmic renewal of the universe.

In the Zoroastrian religion, abstract qualities or natural forces are often personified, and are honored on their special days. The day of Noruz honors a personified abstraction - in later concepts, a "guardian spirit" - called Rapithwin. He is the "lord" of the noonday heat, which begins to appear after the spring equinox. During the winter, Rapithwin stays beneath the earth and keeps the waters under the earth warm, so that the roots of plants do not freeze and die. Zoroastrian legends of time place both the Creation and the Renovation of the World at noontime, so that Rapithwin presides over the times of both beginning and end. One modern Zoroastrian, following this mythological logic, has even speculated that the "Big Bang," the modern scientific concept of the beginning of the Universe, happened at Noruz - though, at that original point, there were yet no years or days to measure Noruz by, so every moment was Noruz.

Persian mythology also connects Noruz with the mythical King Yima, or Jamshid, the most famous of the prehistoric kings of Iran. Jamshid was supposed to have instituted the festival of the New Year, and in recent times, Zoroastrians have called the Noruz festival "Jamshedi Noruz," the New Day of Jamshid.

The festival of Noruz, though truly Iranian, has its counterparts in Jewish and Christian celebrations. The Jewish feast of Passover, the commemoration of the liberation of the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt, takes place around the beginning of spring, though the Jewish calendar does not place Passover directly at the Equinox. In Judaism, sacred history connects with the cycles of the earth, so that the renewal of the earth and liberation from winter is compared symbolically with the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage.

The same symbolism exists in the Christian faith. Long before Christ, pagan peoples celebrated the renewal of the earth by worshipping gods that died and were resurrected. In Christianity, the actual event of the martyrdom of Christ, and the honoring of sacred nature, converge. The resurrection of Christ from the dead, which in Christian belief took place around the Passover feast, also parallels the rebirth of the earth in spring. Sacred history, building on the Jewish celebration of Passover and the Christ event, re-creates the old myths in a new light.

Zoroastrians celebrate Noruz with a cluster of many festival days, which extend before and after the Equinox date. For ten days before the date of Noruz, a solemn commemoration of the souls of the dead is held; this is called "Farvardigan," the feast of all souls. During this time, in ancient times, consecrated food was set out to feed the spirits of the dead, who were believed to return to earth at this time. The return and presence of the divine spirits of the good departed, the fravashis, is still a theme in Zoroastrian belief. During this period, both houses and inhabitants are carefully cleansed of all dirt and impurities. This ten-day period is also a time for reflection, examination of conscience, and repentance for all wrongs done within the year that is coming to an end. This is not, though, like the Catholic Christian practice of confession and absolution, which is not a Zoroastrian concept.

Around the Noruz date, Iranian householders set up the ceremonial Noruz table display, which is the modern analogue of the food set out for the spirits. This custom is not only Zoroastrian, but is practiced by all Iranians no matter what their faith. The Noruz table also hearkens back to the lavish gifts given by the subjects of the Empire to the Persian Kings at the New Year. This display is filled with symbols of Spring rebirth, fertility, prosperity, and joy.

There is a special sequence to the items placed on the table, which are known in Persian as the "haft-seen" or the "Seven S's." The names of the items all begin with "S", hence the "Seven S's." There is no standard configuration for the Seven, but here is one of the most common groupings:

  • Sabzeh: green sprouts from wheat, peas, or barley
  • Samanoo: pudding made from sprouted grain
  • Serkeh: vinegar
  • Seeb: apples
  • Seer: garlic
  • Sumakh: powdered sumac seasoning
  • Senjed: small date-like fruits

The sevenfold number of these good things is Zoroastrian in origin. The seven Amesha Spentas, the "Bounteous Immortals," are God's prime emanations, and this number of gifts honors them, though there is no correspondence between any one item and any one Amesha Spenta.

There are other things whose names begin with S which are on the Noruz table: the sonbol, a hyacinth or narcissus in bloom; sekeh or coins, symbolizing prosperity, and the sofreh or decorative cloth on the table under all the items. The festive table is completed with more symbolic things: a mirror, an incense burner, a picture of Prophet Zarathushtra (for a Zoroastrian table), painted "easter eggs" resting in a bed of flour, bread, a sugarloaf, fresh vegetables, glasses of wine and milk, little containers of herbs and spices, bowls of nuts and dried fruit, candies and sweets, a fishbowl with goldfish, lighted candles, and a Holy Book. For Zoroastrians, this is the Avesta; for Muslims, the Koran, and for Christians and Jews, the Bible.

Though this Noruz table is an Iranian custom, a Jewish guest would find it familiar; a similar table, the Seder table, is set up for the Jewish observance of Passover. Some of the foods on the Seder table are the same as the ones on the Noruz table, such as bread, eggs, herbs, apples, and nuts (apple and nut mix, or haroseth). But the Jewish foods have different symbolism; they belong to the historical commemoration of the Jewish Exodus. For instance, the matzoh or unleavened bread on the Seder table, symbolizes the journey-bread of the fleeing Jews, who could not wait for it to rise and baked it without leaven, and the Passover herbs are called "bitter herbs," to symbolize the bitterness of bondage and exile.

Here is a major difference between the festival of Noruz and the Jewish Passover or Christian Easter: the Zoroastrian festival does not celebrate a single historic event in the past, but a yearly renewal with its spiritual significance. The Exodus, or the death and (in Christian belief) the resurrection of Christ, are historical events whose commemoration has converged with the celebration of the renewal of nature.

On the Wednesday before Noruz, Iranians celebrate a holiday called Chahar Shambeh Soori. This means "Red Wednesday" in Persian. The red refers to fire. On the evening of that day outdoor bonfires are lit and the more agile members of the community leap over the flames. With this leap they recite: "My yellowness is yours, your redness is mine," thus hoping to send ill-health (yellowness) into the fire and absorbing "redness" or good health from the fire. These bonfires are also said to burn away the bad luck of the old year. In the past Iranian Zoroastrians used to light fires on their roof-tops to guide the visiting souls of the dead to their homes. These ancient customs involving fire show how the Zoroastrian influence persists in Iran.

Iranians all over the world await the coming of the Equinox the way "Westerners" count down to January 1. When the exact time comes, there is an outburst of rejoicing and partying. Noruz is not only a solemn and sacred religious festival for Zoroastrians, but a time of great festivity, feasting, and parties. People give gifts to each other, wear new clothes, and eat special meals (fried trout is a Noruz tradition). Even restaurants have Noruz tables set up with the symbolic elements on them.

During the days following Noruz, Zoroastrians hold a jashan or sacred service, in which the holy fire is lit in celebration and the congregation renews its commitment to the Good Religion. On March 26, five days after the Equinox, Zoroastrians celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Zarathushtra. On the thirteenth day after Noruz, Iranians of all religions hold a secular festival in which families and communities gather outdoors for a picnic. This feast is called sizdeh-be-dar or "thirteen-in-the-outdoors." At this time, the green sprouts and other vegetables and fruits which have graced the Noruz table are cast into running water, a ritual act intended to bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year.

The Parsis, the Zoroastrians of India, do not celebrate Noruz at the spring equinox. Though Parsis are of Iranian origin, their Zoroastrian calendar has shifted during the millennium of their Indian residence, so that they celebrate the New Year much later in the year than the Iranians. Recently the Parsi New Year has been in the late summer. Now that both Parsis and Iranian Zoroastrians are scattered throughout the world, both holidays are held in the diaspora communities, and both Iranians and Parsis are invited to celebrate at each others' festivals.