(This article was written with the help of Ana Mehdizadegan, Soheila Dianat, and Fariba Yousefian, newcomers from Iran; Guldana Sauranova, a newcomer from Kazakhstan; and Mohammad Rauf Akbari, a newcomer from Afghanistan.)
Nowruz (also spelt Novruz, Navruz, Nooruz, Nevruz, Nauryz), literally ‘new day’ in Persian, marks the start of a New Year in various Middle Eastern, Balkan, and Central Asian countries. This day is celebrated by more than 300 million people on the astronomical vernal equinox i.e. when the sun crosses the equator, which was on March 20th this year. The first day of spring calls for a grand celebration, especially after long winter months, and methods of celebration vary with region.
During Nowruz, Iranians celebrate with 13 days of festivities. People celebrate on the streets, and traditional poetry, songs, and dances play a key role in the celebrations. Revellers fill the streets to watch buskers or take part in the performances. At the time of the equinox, millions of families gather around a ceremonial table known as the Haftseen.
“Nowruz is a time for spring cleaning, buying new clothes, visiting friends and relatives and renewing bonds,” says Ana Mehdizadegan, Child Care Worker in YMCA Child Care Centre.
In every home, the Haftseen table is decorated with Haft (Persian for the number 7) objects beginning with the letter Seen (S in Persian). Seven is considered a lucky number by Iranians. Each object on the table signifies spring and renewal, which may include
- Sabzeh, wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish symbolizes rebirth
- Samanu, a sweet pudding made from wheat germ, symbolizes affluence
- Seer, garlic symbolizes health
- Seeb, apples symbolize beauty
- Serkeh, vinegar symbolizes age and patience
- Senjed, dried fruits of the oleaster tree symbolize love
- Somaq, Sumac berries, which have the colour of sunrise and symbolize a new day and a new beginning.
Multiple regions celebrate with other symbolic objects like hyacinth flowers (to mark the arrival of spring), coins (for prosperity), goldfish (represent life), painted eggs (symbolize fertility), Quran (Holy Book), portraits of ancestors (in memory and respect), candles, and a mirror (reflecting a bright future).
Fariba Yousefian says, “Nowruz celebrations symbolizes a time of rebirth and renewal just like the nature that changes and gets refreshed. We human beings could have an opportunity to take new steps or even have a new vision and dreams in the new year.”
Iranians spend the night of Nowruz with their family eating a new year dinner, traditionally white fish with rice and herbs. Many families give a money gift (called eidi) to the children to mark the new year. People often visit each other’s homes on the following days and always take traditional gifts with them. Nowruz is also considered a time to put aside the differences, revive relationships, and start afresh with the New Year.
“We hope you also enjoy the arrival of spring. Nowruz Mubarak,” says Soheila Dianat, Life-Skills Counsellor in YMCA Newcomer Connections.
On the 13th day of the New Year, the celebrations finally come to an end with an outdoor picnic with lots of food and games. Since the 13th is an unlucky day, families take the dish of sprouts (sabzeh) from the Haftseen table during the picnic and submerge it into flowing water, symbolizing “letting go” of the misfortunes of the coming year.
In Afghanistan, the Nowruz revolves around celebrating the blessings of nature. The first day of Nowruz, celebrated as Farmers’ Day, is considered an auspicious day to begin cultivation. Farmers hold exhibitions in the city markets to show off their bounties of fruits and vegetables. People also visit the sacred town of Mazar-I-Sharif to participate in its grand celebrations. Crowds have been gathering in Mazar-I-Sharif for centuries and Nowruz has grown into a part of the town’s identity.
Similar to the other countries, Afghans clean their houses and wear new clothes to welcome a New Year. As a tradition, women from neighbouring houses gather and collectively cook a special dish called Samanak, made with wheat flour, sugar, oil. They would also sing folk songs to keep the celebrations going. People also prepare Haft Mēwa (literally Seven Fruits) in addition to or instead of Haftseen (from Iran). Haft Mewa is like a fruit salad made from seven different dried fruits, served in their syrup. The seven dried fruits are raisins, Senjed, pistachios, hazelnuts, prunes, walnuts, and either almonds or other species of plum fruit. People wish each other Sal-e naw Mubarak, literally Happy New Year.
Nauryz is a huge celebration in multiple regions of Kazakhstan. During the Nauryz holiday, large and small cities and villages become festival centres, felt yurts are erected in city centres with food-laden dastarkhan (table). It is full of people wearing beautiful national clothes singing Kazakh songs, playing musical instruments, or watching street performances and unique horse shows. These spots are flowing with rich traditions and are the best spot to learn about a new culture.
As with other countries, the number seven plays an important role in Kazakh celebrations. People cook a traditional dish with seven different ingredients called Nauryz kozhe, made of water, meat, salt, milk or yoghurt, one type of grain, chosen from rice, corn or wheat, and others. These seven ingredients symbolize seven virtues or qualities, such as joy, success, intelligence, health, wealth, agility, and security. During the days of Nauryz celebrations, it is customary to visit the houses of seven other families with traditional gifts to strengthen their bonds, who would in turn visit seven other families.
But the celebrations of Nowruz go beyond the festivities, cleaning, and food. It is time to start afresh, rebirth, strengthen relationships, celebrate spring, and celebrate life.