Nowruz is a secular holiday celebrated in the early spring in Iran, Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tartarstan, and Georgia), and in some parts of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Crimea, and Macedonia. It is a time for family and friends to gather at each other’s houses for festivity and feasting. Children have time off from school and adults generally do not have to work during this time.
The ancient celebration of Nowruz begins around the Spring Equinox. It is called “the Persian New Year” and is seen as the beginning of the year. Nowruz means “New Day”, the beginning of the cycle of life. It is not a religious holiday, it is the celebration of the renewal of nature. During the celebration people are encouraged to be gentle, forgiving and friendly. Separation from evil and hatred is the goal.
Nowruz has been celebrated for more than 2500 years. It is believed that it originates from ancient Mesopotamia. Many of its traditions were associated with the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia, celebrating how the brightness and warmth of the coming months triumph over the cold and darkness of winter. The celebration can keep going for several weeks! It is a time to visit and forgive.
The holiday is spelled/pronounced several different ways (Наврӯз, - Narooz, Narouz, Noruz, Nauriz, Nauruz, Nauryz, Navrez, Navroj, Navruz, Naw-Rúz, Nawroz, Nawrooz, Nawruz, Nevruz, Newroz, Newruz, Neyruz, Nooruz, Norooz, Norouz, Noruz, Novruz, Nowroj, Nowruz) and has similarities with many other spring celebrations. Nowruz, Passover, St. Joseph’s Day, Feast of St. George, Maimuna, Maslenitsa, and Al-Naseem all are variations on the theme of the symbolism of the spring feast.
Preparing for Nowruz begins a few weeks before the actual celebration. People clean up their land and homes, wash the rugs and decorate with the blossoming branches of fruit and nut trees. It is also a time to “clean up” one’s life: pay debts, forgive and make peace. It is believed that Nowruz brings good luck, and that wishes come true, if it is greeted with a clean soul. Colorful new furniture is secured. All household containers are filled with clear water, milk and grains to encourage prosperity. Ten days before Nowrus, grains are soaked to start them sprouting for the “Sabzeh” for “Haft-Seen Table”.
All work must cease before the rising of the morning star on the day of Nowruz.
On Nowruz people don bright new clothing. In the towns, there are activities such as fortune telling, horse racing, hand-to-hand combat, singing competitions, intellectual games, storytelling, dances, and singers. Friends visit each other’s homes. Visitors and are offered rosewater to wash their hands, or are sprayed with water to “wash off” the old year.
Sometimes in disguise, the visitors bang loudly with pots and spoons as their friends try to guess their identity. Small presents, money, candy, flowers and blessings are given, fruit trees are planted, yurts are decorated, and people gather in the fresh spring air.
The number seven is important in the Nowruz celebration. Seven dishes, seven ingredients... representing the seven days of the week. The most important element of this is the “Haft-Seen Table” (the Table of the Seven Ss)
“The Haft-Seen Table”
The most important activity in the Nowruz celebration is the decoration and display of the “Haft-Seen Table”. The decoration of the table is a family activity. The table is made beautiful; decorative plates and vessels are used. The traditional décor of the “Haft-Seen Table” varies from country to country, and from family to family. It may be decorated with:
- “Termeh” - A special family hand-woven table cloth.
- A mirror - Symbolizing cleanliness and honesty. Reflecting life and the past. It is said to show the future so that people can make appropriate plans.
- Colored hard cooked eggs for each member of the family - Symbolizing fertility, mother earth, and happiness. Traditionally the colors used are red, green or yellow.
- A candle for every child in the house - Symbolizing radiating light, enlightenment, happiness, and the light of life. These are placed in front of the mirror to reflect the images and reflections of creation.
- Gnarled branches - Representing the twisting path of life.
- A bowl of water - Symbolizing the earth.
- A goldfish swimming in a bowl - Symbolizing a happy life full of activity and movement, life within life, and new life. Fish and water are two of the most ancient traditional items to celebrate this holiday.
- A sour orange floating in a bowl of water – Symbolizing the Earth floating in space.
- The national colors.
- Rosewater – For it’s magical cleansing powers.
- A book special to the family - For example the Qur’an, a Bible, a book of poetry, or a favorite story.
- Traditional pastries such as baklava, toot, or naan-nokhodchi.
- An incense burner or brazier for burning wild rue, a sacred herb that is supposed to ward off evil spirits.
- “Sekeh” (Gold coins) - Symbolizing prosperity and wealth in the “new year”. Bringing courage.
- A pot of “sombol” (Hyacinth or Narcissis flowers) - Symbolizing peace, love, kindness, rebirth of nature, and the motions of the human soul.
- Dried nuts, berries, pomegranates, fruits, raisins, grains, fresh vegetables, nigella seeds, and/or olives.
- Seven food items beginning with the Persian letter “seen” (English “s” or “sh) - The exact seven items vary from family to family. Some examples include:
- “Shirini” (Candy and Sweets): To sweeten the mouth. This can be in the form of Sugar, syrup, sugar cone or honey.
- “Sabzeh” (Sprouted grains and lentils growing in a dish): To symbolize life. Brings happiness, freshness, purity, heat, abundance, health, rebirth, and good life. A red ribbon is usually tied around the sprouted grains.
- “Seer” or “Sir” (Garlic): To symbolize good health and wealth. Keeps away bad spirits and sickness.
- “Seeb” or “Sib” (Red apple): To symbolize knowledge and long life. Brings healthiness, beauty, and happiness. They provide color as well as representing fruit from the time of Adam and Eve.
- “Sangak” (Bread): To symbolize family happiness and a plentiful year.
- “Sumac” or “Somaq” (Crushed sumac berries): To symbolize the sunrise, joy, and spice of life.
- “Senjed” (Jujube fruit, dried fruit of the lotus or oleaster tree, called the Chinese Red Date): To symbolized love and affection. 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. Other dried fruit may be substituted.
- “Serkeh” or “Sirke” (Vinegar): To symbolize patience and age. It is a symbol of fermentation, having originated as grapes and undergone many transformations. Wine was always present in ancient times, but today it is replaced by vinegar since alcohol is banned in Islam
- “Samanu” (Sweet wheat germ pudding): To symbolize fertility, affluence, and sweetness of life. Rice pudding is sometimes substituted.
- “Sebzi” (Fried meat with greens)
- “Sud” (Milk): Fresh milk is an older tradition that is not much used now.
At this “New Year’s Eve” dinner people try to make the table as rich as possible with elegant dishes and sweets. The goal is for everyone at the table to be full and happy, to ensure safety for the coming year, and to have an abundant crop.
Some of the traditional foods enjoyed vary from country to country, but they might include: “Chai” (tea), sugar coated almonds, “Baklava” sweetened with rosewater, cookies made with rice flour, yogurt soup (a traditional Kazakh dish made with seven ingredients), Plov (pilaf), porridge, and various meats.
FIRE JUMPING and AWAITING THE EQUINOX
On the night of the last Wednesday of the “old year” Fire Jumping is celebrated in many areas. The flames symbolically take away offenses of the previous year. In the street, little bonfires are set and people jump over the flames, saying “May my sickly pallor be yours and your red glow be mine”.
After the Fire Jumping, the families return home and await the exact moment of the Spring Equinox. Traditionally, Hajji Firuz announces the coming of the equinox, and the family exchanges well wishes. The eldest in the family may give out candy, coins and gifts.
Shortly before the equinox the family gathers around the “Haft-Seen Table”. They place coins in their hands and hold hands, place a piece of candy in their mouths, and count down to the new year. At the moment of equinox the family members hug each other.
Final Day of Nowruz
On the last day of the Nowruz celebration many families go to the park for a picnic. There they eat the food, sing and dance with other families. The “sabzeh” are thrown to the ground or in a body of water to symbolize the return of the plant to nature. This marks the end of Nowruz and the return to work and school.
Folk Tales and Figures of Nowruz
Amu Narouz (“Uncle New Day”) is a respected, wise, handsome, elderly, silver-haired man (although in some versions he is young). He has a green beard made of lentil sprouts and his hair is darkened with henna. He is gentle and kind to all creatures. Wherever he walks he brings life, health, fortune and good weather. The people love him and celebrate his arrival every year. He tells the old story of Nowruz to the young people. Every year on the first day of spring he dresses in a felt hat, long blue cloak, a sash, and a green shawl. He rides his chestnut horse and sets off from his mountain to wind down to the city. He brings the children gifts.
Naneh Sarma (“Old Woman Winter”) is an old woman who loves Amu Narouz. She is also called the “Lady of the Cold Spells”, or “Grandma Frost”. She has white hair, a bent back, wrinkles on her face, crimson cheeks and lips, a body of light, and the mark of an icy moon on her forehead. She wears a long white robe and a garland of wintersweet flowers. Naneh Sarma loves the snow and the cold. Every year at the end of summer she calls for the cold air to come and then sends it down the valley with a wave of her arm. She sings the trees into a deep sleep, sends the animals to find shelter and the people to gather wood. Every year on the first day of spring she wakes early and cleans her house from ceiling to floor. Then she bathes, does her makeup with seven different items, and dresses in fine clothing. She spreads her best carpet on the porch and places seven kinds of dried fruit and candy on a tray. She lights the charcoal and sets a pipe next to it. Then she awaits the arrival of Amu Narouz, but she soon she falls asleep. When Amu Narouz arrives he does not wake her. He places a Marigold in her hands and sits by her side, smoking the pipe, stoking the coals, and eating the treats. After a time he sets off once again for the road. When the old woman awakens and realizes that Amu Narouz has been there she realizes that she must wait for another spring. Some people believe that if the two were to actually meet, the world would come to an end. As we are all still here, listening to this tale, we know that Amu Narouz and the old woman have never yet met.
Hajji Firuz is a friend of Amu Narouz. He appears in the streets at the beginning of Nowruz and announces the arrival of spring. He is a young playful commoner. His face is covered in soot as a disguise, and he wears bright red satin clothes with a pointed felt hat. He dances, sings, chants, and plays his tambourine to bring good cheer. Because his face is covered in soot, he has become a controversial character, sometimes interpreted as racist, therefore these days half of his face is sometimes painted white to prevent criticisms.
Nowruz in Other Countries
In Kazakhstan the holiday is called “Nauryz Meyramy” and is celebrated for three days. People wish each other “Ulystin uly kuni Qutty bolsin!” (Nowruz season greetings!) If someone wishes you a happy Nowruz in this way, it is proper to reciprocate with “Birghe Bolsyn!” (You have one too!) It is believed by some that the more you celebrate at Nowruz time, the more successful you will be in the coming year.
Nauryz Meyrami activities include “Aytis” (contest of poetry and music), horse racing, “Kokpar” (a type of polo), “Kumis Alu” (a horseback game where riders attempt to pick a handkerchief off the ground while galloping a full speed), “Kuuz Kuu” (Catch the Girl), and other games on horseback. Such horseraces have included as many as 200 riders going 30 laps around a mile-long track. In Kazakhstan it is said that the more you celebrate at this time, the greater will be your success throughout the year. The “Nauriz-bata” (Nowruz blessing) is given by an elder and is considered an honor and sign of kindness.
In Uzbekistan “Navro’z Bayrami” begins on the 21st of March, but preparations begin several days ahead of time. Homes are cleaned and decorated, and broken items are thrown out. It is also a time for cleaning up one's life, renewing friendships, and creating harmony for the coming year. A torchlight parade symbolizes the burning of disease, sadness and bad luck. A traditional meal of "sumalyak" (a molasses-flavored sprouted cream of wheat with spices) Sprouted grain is the symbol of life, heat, abundance and health.
In Tajikistan the children gather wild flowers on the first day of “Navrooz” and then give them to neighbors. Colorful clothing is worn. They sing old songs. A traditional Tajik “Navrooz” dish is fried shish kebab and sweet pilaf symbolizing sweetness and happiness for the coming year.
In Azerbaijan the celebration is called “Novruz Bairam”. Despite the fact that the Soviets forbade any official celebration, Azerbaijanis have always observed “Novruz Bairam” as their most important holiday. At times they had to celebrate it discreetly inside their homes, but they continued to celebrate it. It is sometimes believed that the spirits of ancestors visit at the end of the winter. Children run through the streets, bang on pots, knock on doors, and ask for treats. This is called “qashogh-zany” and symbolizes the beating out of the last unlucky Wednesday of the year. The four Wednesdays before “Novruz Bairam” are each celebrated with different activities.
Kyrgyz households burn archa twigs (a tree that grows in the Central Asian mountains) to smoke out the evil spirits. There are feasts and games, such as “Ulak Tartish” (a game on horseback). The illegal tradition of “ala kachuu” (bride kidnapping) is still practiced in some areas during this time.
“Nevruz” is a mystical day celebrated by the Bektaskis in Albania. Other Albanians call the day Spring Day.
Tartars and Bashkirs of Southern Russia are said to have adopted their celebrations of Nowruz from the Persian tribes that once lived in the Ural Valley of Southern Russia. They prepare a common meal and hold contests of running, dancing and singing. There are ceremonies to assure a successful “new year”. There are traditional dishes of buckwheat groats and sweets.
Nowruz is also celebrated in Georgia and Turkmenistan.
“Maslenitsa” is observed throughout Russia and Ukraine in the early spring as a time of the return of light and warmth. Other similar celebrations related to the Spring Equinox include Easter, Passover, St. Joseph’s Day, Flowers Day, Baba Marta Day in Bulgaria, Yarla in Belarus, Martisor & Baba Dochia Days in Romania, Marsanny in Poland, Ederlezi (Djurdjevdan or Herdelezi) in the Romani cultures, Fire of Terndez in Armenia, and more.
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