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Home » National Celebrations of Iran » The Celebration of New Year in Ancient Mesopotamia & Iran
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The Celebration of New Year in Ancient Mesopotamia & Iran
Last Updated: October, 2009

HeadingNo Ruz (Nowruz) during the Sasanian Era

What we have today as No Ruz goes back to the Sasanian period. They ruled during the last great Persian Empire before the advent of Islam. There are many references to the celebration of No Ruz at this time in both Zoroastrian and Islamic literature. The Zoroastrian book Zadspram  mentions that:

    A sense of renewal was now characteristic of No Ruz. New cloths were worn and food was of the new season. The day began with a mouthful of pure fresh milk and fresh cheese; all the kings of Persia took it as a blessing. The king in the morning ate white sugar with fresh Indian nuts.
The same text mentions that “it was the custom to sow seven seeds, which would come up fresh and green on the holy day itself.”

Sasanian started celebrations ten days prior to the New Year. They believed the guardian angels and spirits of the dead would come down to earth within these ten days to visit their human counterparts (All Souls festival or Fravardegan). A major spring-cleaning was carried out to welcome them with feasts and celebrations. Bonfires were set up on rooftops at night to indicate to the spirits and the angels that humans were ready to receive them. This was called Suri Festival.

Modern Iranians still carry out the spring-cleaning and celebrate ‘Chahar Shanbeh Suri’ (Wednesday Suri). Bonfires are made and all people will jump over the fire on the last Tuesday of the year. This is a purification rite and Iranians believe by going over the fire they will get rid of all their illnesses and misfortunes. This festival did not exist before Islam in this form and very likely is a combination of more than one ritual, which accounts for its survival.  

The ancient Zoroastrians celebrated the first five days of No Ruz, but it was the sixth day that was the most important of all. This day was called the Great No Ruz (No Ruz e bozorg) and is assumed to be the birthday of Zoroaster himself. Zoroastrians today still celebrate this day, but it has lost its significance for the rest of the Iranians. During the Sasanian period, the New Year was celebrated for 21 days and on the 19th day there was another major festival. At all times there were feasts, prayers, dance, theatre and jesters. The Haji Firouz tradition might be what is left of the ancient festivities. For this occasion men representing spirits from after-life colour their face black, dress in bright red, appear in public dancing and singing joyful and merry songs, and spread the news of the coming year.


HeadingNo Ruz (Nowruz) in modern times

Modern Iranians celebrate New Year for 13 days only. It is customary for all to take a bath and cleanse themselves thoroughly before No Ruz. This is a purification rite but has lost its meaning with modern life. New garments are worn to emphasis newness and freshness, and this is very important since No Ruz is a feast of hope and renewal.  Families stay home and wait for the start of the New Year at the exact time the spring equinox starts. The time the New Year starts changes every year and is called ‘Tahvil’, but the day is around 19th to 21st of March. The first few minutes are spent around an elaborately prepared spread with several items and objects known as ‘Haft Sin’(seven ‘s’). More religious people will read or recite verses from the Quran, the Muslim holy book (or other holy books if they are not Muslims), just before the start of the New Year.

A few days before No Ruz colourfully dressed male troubadours, Haji Firouz, appear in public and announce the coming of the New Year. They carry a small percussion instrument called ‘dayereh zangy’. They sing and dance and recite popular songs about No Ruz, which are very ancient in origin. Abu- Rayhan Biruni, the celebrated scientist and phlosopher mentions Piruz as a spirit protector of dead and the figure was very likely part of the celebrations welcoming the dead ancestors, hence the black face. They are very popular and there are recorded tapes of amusing songs that normally accompany the figures. In the older songs from the 19th century, they call themselves atash afruz, meaning fire igniters. This is reminiscent of their ancient origin. All Iranian dance groups outside the country are performing Haji Firouz shows during No Ruz celebrations.

Once the New Year is announced (on the radio or TV) the younger members of the family will pay respect to the elders by wishing them a merry New Year and sometimes kissing their hands (a sign of ultimate respect). Relatives kiss and hug and gifts (traditionally cash or coins) are exchanged. Sweets are offered to all, to symbolically sweeten their lives for the rest of the year. A small mirror is passed around, rose water is sprinkled into the air and wild rue (sepan/esfand),a popular incense, is burnt to purify and to keep the evil eye away. In more traditional families, the father and the first-born son will walk around the house with a lit candle and a small mirror to ritually bless the physical space. Lit candles on the spread are left to burn until they go out.

The first few days are spent visiting older members of the family, relatives and friends. Children receive presents and sweets and special meals are consumed. Traditionally the night before the New Year, most Iranians will have ‘Sabzi Polo Mahi’: rice cooked with fresh herbs served with smoked and freshly fried fish. ‘Koko Sabzi’, a mixture of fresh herbs with fried or baked eggs is also served. The next day rice and noodles ‘Reshteh Polou’ will be consumed. Regional variations exist and very colourful feasts are prepared.

A major part of the New Year rituals is setting a special table with seven specific items present, Haft Sin (Haft chin, seven crops before Islam). In the ancient times seven items corresponded to each of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. Today the items are changed and modified, but most have kept their symbolism. All the seven items start with the letter ‘S’; this was not the order in ancient times. Zoroastrians today do not have the seven ‘S’ but they have the ritual of growing seven seeds. Ancient Iranians also grew seven seeds as a reminder that this is the seventh feast of the creation, while their sprouting into new growth symbolized the festival’s other significance as a feast of resurrection and of eternal life to come.

Although the contents of this spread are ancient and correspond to ancient mythologies and beliefs, the idea of Haft Sin (SevenS’) is relatively new and is a culmination of theevolution of ancient traditions with a much more modern arrangement.


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