Jashn-e Norooz
by: Dr. Farhang Mehr


Iranian history is composed of two periods, the period of Zarathushti Iran and the period of Islamic Iran which began in seventh century, after the Arab invasion and the downfall of the Sassanian empire. Many Iranian festivities such as Norooz festival have been inherited from the Zarathushti era and embody the optimistic philosophy of the Zarathushti religion, in particular the idea that God or Ahura Mazda (The Lord of Life and Wisdom) has endowed human beings with a life that can be lived with joy and happiness. The idea is that if human beings lead a life that is guided by wisdom, truthfulness, compassion and creativity, they can obtain a state of peace and happiness. Various times in the year provide human beings with an opportunity to celebrate their achievements.

To fully appreciate Norooz, it is important to examine it in its context, along with some of the other festivities of ancient Iran. The Zarathushti calendar consisted of 12 months which had one day that corresponded with the name of that month. This day was a day of celebration, for the individual and the community. An agrarian society, the ancient Iran also had six religious festivals that corresponded with agricultural events. These agricultural celebrations provided the community with an opportunity to come together and celebrate the bounty of its labor.

Finally, ancient Zarathushti Iran was also marked by five national festivities which have survived through the centuries to the present day. These festivities are: Norooz, Tirgan, Mehrgan, Yalda and sadeh. Of these Norooz is the most popular. It coincides with the first day of the Iranian calendar and marks the beginning of the Iranian new year. Like the other four national festivities, Norooz can be defined by three characteristics: (1) it has an astronomical basis; (2) it has a historical and mythical basis and (3) it reflects an optimistic socio-religious philosophy.

The achievement of ancient Iranians in the area of astronomy is impressive, in that the various celebrations coincide with the equinox or solstice. The equinox is either of two times during the year when the sun crosses the equator and the day and night are equal length. These days occurs around March 21sr and September 23rd. Norooz corresponds with March 21st, (Farvardin 1st to 12th), the vernal equinox and Mehrgan corresponds with September 23rd, (Mehr 3rd to 10th), the autumnal equinox.

Ancient Zoroastrians also celebrated the solstice, which is either of two times during the year when the sun is farthest from the equator, about June 21st (the summer solstice) when it is farthest south. Tirgan corresponds with the summer solstice and celebrates the longest day of the year; Yalda corresponds with the winter solstice and celebrates the longest night of the year. Finally the Sadeh festivity which occurs hundred days after the winter in Ancient calendar (fifty days before the Norooz, the beginning of summer in Ancient Calendar) and celebrated the end of cold weather, heralding the arrival of spring ("Cheleh Koochak"). The scientific or astronomical basis for these festivities is a testimony to our ancestors knowledge of astronomy.

The festivals, interestingly, have a historical or mythical aspect to them that reveals the culture or national consciousness of our ancestors. Again, the philosophy is rooted in a religious ideology which is optimistic: the festivities celebrate the triumph of good over evil, lightness over darkness and justice over despotism. According to Iranian mythology, Jamshid Shah coined Norooz as a "new day" after he eliminated ignorance, disease, poverty and injustice; Norooz celebrates his achievements; the promotion of happiness, progress and plentitude. Mehrgan, the autumn equinox, is the day when an ironsmith, known as Kaveh Ahangar, overthrew an unjust despotic king by the name of Azhidahak (also known as "Zahak") who had ordered the death of all five of Kaveh Ahangar's sons. Mehrgan also coincides with the overthrow of another despotic usurper of power, Gaumata, by the great king of the Achamenian Dynasty, Darius the Great.

Tirgan, the summer solstice celebrated the life of Arash Kamangir, an Iranian national hero who sacrificed his life to preserve the territorial integrity of Iran. Yalda, the winter solstice, celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, right over wrong, good over evil and the birth of the "Sun-God", Mithra. Finally Sadeh commemorated the discovery of fire which is not only a source of energy but one of the elements such as the air, the water and the earth that Zoroastrians must preserve and not pollute.

Lastly, the socio-religious aspects of these five national celebrations are aimed at strengthening social bonds by bringing together the community, promoting charity and ensuring that the more needy members of the community are not forgotten. It is important to keep these values in mind as examine the Norooz ritual.

There are several customs that are performed at the Norooz festival. The most impressive one is the setting of the traditional "Sofreh Haft Seen", the Haft Seen" table, on which seven items beginning with the Persian letter "Seen" (similar to the letter "S" in English) are placed. The word "haft" in Persian means seven and thus "haft seen" literally translates to seven "seen"s. Many cultures and religions consider the number seven cardinal characteristics of God or Ahura Mazda. Zarathushtis refer to these seven qualities as "Amsha Spenta."

The various items that are placed on the table affect our senses, creating a beautiful table which reflects the various colors, scents and flavors of spring and some say, life. The usual seven items set on the table are "sabzi" (literally, greenery -usually the sprouts of wheat and lentil", "sonbol" (the hyacinth flower), "senjed" (a dried fruit), "seer" (garlic), "serkeh" (vinegar), samanu (a Persian dish) and "sekeh" (a coin). The flowers, the green vegetation and their fruits and spices celebrate the coming of spring while the coin is seen as a celebration of year's success and prosperity. The Holy Scriptures is placed on the table in praise of the Creator. The mirror that is placed on the table reflects a Zarathushti belief that whatever we receive in life is a reflection of our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Candles represent the light of truth, a bowl of water with a gold fish celebrates life and the living things on earth, and sweets celebrate the coming of a happy new year as well as the "sweetness" and pleasure in life. The pomegranates and eggs that are placed on the table represent fertility and rice represents plentitude. The final items on the table, rose water. Zarathushtis welcome their guests by pouring drops of rosewater on their hands and wishing them happiness in the coming year.

Another tradition of the Norooz celebration is "spring cleaning" prior to the concurrence of the spring equinox, houses (including all the linen and furniture) are thoroughly cleaned or washed, and if need be, the houses repaired and painted. Wheat and lentil are planted and as mentioned above, their sprouts are placed on the table to represent the bounty of Spring. According to tradition, the sprouts are kept for 13 days after which friends and family gather for a day of celebration outside the house, during which time they throw the sprouts into running water.

For Iranians the Norooz celebration is also a time to celebrate loved ones, both the living and the deceased. According to Zarathushti tradition on the wake of Norooz, the souls of the deceased would visit their descendants and bless them. Five days prior to Norooz, various ceremonies were held to remember the deceased. celebrating life and living, family members (today, primarily the children) are treated to new clothes and start the new year with a feast. In a tradition that has be3en passed on through generations, during the twelve days that follow the equinox, friends and neighbors visit one another, usually starting by paying their respects to the elders of the family and community. The visits are traditionally extemporaneous; Iranians hold "open houses where guests are greeted with fruit, sweets and tea. The Norooz celebration thus encourages the people to come together and strengthen their friendly ties.

The Norooz tradition did not go unchallenged through the centuries. After the invasion of Iran in the seventh century, Moslem fanatics such as the Islamic philosopher, Mohammad Ghazalli argued that the ancient Iranian culture, including traditions such as Norooz had to be abandoned. Fortunately, this view was not shared by the populace and great poets such as Ferdowssi, Nasser Khosrow, Onsori, Nezami, Manuchehri, Khaghani, Farrokhi, Sa'adi, Hafez and Khaju, who stood for preservation of the beautiful and meaningful festivities of ancient Iran, most notably the Norooz. It is interesting to note that Shi'ite philosophers and sages even attributed Islamic characteristics to the Norooz celebration in n their efforts to preserve it. Some argued that the Moslem prophet, Mohammad appointed Imam Ali as his successor on the day that is now celebrated as Norooz. Imam, Sadeq, the sixth Imam in the Shi'ite tradition, argued that God created Adam on Norooz and that the twelfth Imam, Mehdi or the Messiah will return on Norooz. In the 8th century, caliphs of the Abassid dynasty beginning with Ma'mun began celebrating Norooz with splendor. Ghaznavi kings such as Sultan Mahmood and Masood are also known for their magnificent celebrations of the Norooz festival. Norooz, however, did not become a national celebration until Malekshah Saljuqi.

Presently, Norooz is a beautiful national celebration that reflects the rich cultural heritage of Iran. It not only embodies a colorful historical/mythical basis but demonstrates the ancient Iranians' impressive understand of science and astronomy. Norooz is an optimistic celebration of life in all its glory. It is a celebration of universal and timeless values and ideals---truth, compassion, wisdom, justice and peace. It is a celebration of the first day of Spring and as such the renewal of life and the world. As flowers blossom and the world awakens to the beauty of Spring, so we, Iranians celebrate the glorious gift of life and new beginnings.