One of the most significant Iranian festivals is called Nou Rouz (Norouz) – the New Year. Norouz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in Iranian calendar. It literally means the ‘New Day’ and is celebrated on the vernal equinox in spring, which usually occurs on March 21 or the previous / following day depending on where it is observed. It is the rejuvenation of nature, the beginning of a new life and most appropriate time in nature to start a New Year. Norouz is also widely referred to as the Persian New Year. Many other parts of the world, including parts of Central Asia, Caucasus, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Crimea and some groups in the Balkans also celebrate Norouz.
The term Norouz in writing, first appeared in Persian records in the 2nd century AD, but it was also an important day during the time of the Achaemenids (c. 548-330 BC), when kings from different nations under the Persian empire used to bring gifts to the King of Kings (Shahanshah) of Persia.
The UN’s General Assembly in 2010 recognized the International Day of Norouz, describing it a spring festival of Persian origin which has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. During the meeting of The Inter-governmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage of the United Nations, held between September 28 and October 2, 2009 in Abu Dhabi, Norouz was officially registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Haftseen or the seven ‘S’s is a traditional table setting of Norouz. It has been evolved over the centuries yet it has still kept its tradition. The Haftseen table includes seven specific items, all starting with the seen (Sā) in the Persian alphabet. Traditionally, families attempt to set the most aesthetically appealing Haftseen table they can as an expression of traditional, spiritual, and social value, for visitors during Norouz visitations.
The Haft Seen items are
- 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 oleaster fruit) – symbolizing love
- Sir (garlic) – symbolizing cure
- Sib (apple) – symbolizing health
- Somāq (sumac fruit) – symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
- Serkeh (vinegar) – symbolizing old-age and patience
It is also common to see the following items in Haftseen:
- Sonbol (the fragrant hyacinth flower) – symbolizing the coming of spring
- Sekkeh (coins) – symbolizing prosperity
- Iranian pastries such as Baklava
- Lit candles symbolizing enlightenment and happiness
- A mirror symbolizing Truth, the reflection of the Real World
- Decorated eggs, sometimes one for each member of the family symbolizing fertility
- A bowl with goldfish symbolizing life
- Water with a bitter orange in it symbolizing Earth “floating” in space
- A very traditional poetry book, such as the Shahnameh or the Divan of Hafez, or a religious text such as the holy Quran or Avesta
The traditional herald of the Norouz season is a man called Haji Firouz (or Khwāja Pīrūz). He symbolizes the rebirth of the Sumerian god of sacrifice, Domuzi, who was killed at the end of each year and reborn at the beginning of the New Year.
He usually uses face paint to make his skin black (black is an ancient Persian symbol of good luck) and wears a red costume. Then he sings and dances on the streets with tambourines and trumpets spreading good cheer and heralds the coming of the New Year.