Monday, March 21, 2011

'Tis That Time...

Spring is here! It arrived yesterday at precisely 4:21 p.m. in my local time zone. How do I know this? Because at that precise moment, Iranians, Afghans, and Zoroastrians of all nationalities were busy ringing in the new year.

Eid-e Norouz, or Persian New Year, is celebrated on the vernal equinox. Instead of breaking out the bubbly at midnight on December 31, Persians mark the new year at the moment the sun crosses the equator, dividing day and night into equal lengths. The time of the equinox changes from year to year, but usually it occurs on March 20 or 21.

This holiday is such a big deal to Iranians that the festivities can’t be crammed into a single day. In fact, two whole weeks are required, with the celebrations ending on the thirteenth day after the spring equinox.

Here are a few of my favorite Eid-e Norouz traditions:

Khooneh tekooneh (shaking the house): Calling this a favorite tradition is actually quite a stretch. It involves cleaning the house from top to bottom. Unlike the superficial housekeeping I usually get away with (dragging the vacuum across the high traffic areas and swatting at last month’s accumulation of dust), khooneh tekooneh means getting into every nook and cranny, shaking out the carpets, and washing the windows. It may be hard work, but if I let the ritual slide, bad luck will chase my family throughout the year.

Chahar shanbeh souri (fire festival): Like the spring cleaning ritual, this one is all about tossing out the old and embracing the new. But this time you do it with fire. You start out by smashing old crockery to release the pain and bad luck that has built up in the past months. Then you go out and make a whole lot of noise by setting off firecrackers and banging on old metal pots with heavy spoons. If that doesn’t scare the devil away, nothing will. But the rituals don’t end there. After dark, you build a bonfire and jump over it, chanting a phrase into the fire that roughly translates as: take my sickly color and give me your vibrant redness. The idea is for the fire to burn away the illness and troubles of the past and leave you with good health and better luck in the future.

Haft seen (the seven seens): Seen is the 15th letter of the Persian alphabet, and the haft seen is a festive arrangement of seven auspicious items whose names all begin with this letter: seeb (apples) for beauty and good health; sabzeh (lentil sprouts) for rebirth; samanu (wheat pudding) for affluence (this one really should be perseverance, since it takes weeks to make samanu, from soaking and sprouting the wheat berries to stirring the pudding for hours as it cooks); serkeh (vinegar) for wisdom and patience; senjed (dried fruit of the oleaster tree) for love—it is said that the fragrance of oleaster blossoms makes people fall in love; somaq (sumac berries) symbolizing the color of the sunrise; seer (garlic) for its medicinal properties; sekeh (gold coins), which are supposed to make your money multiply over the course of the year if you put them in your haft seen.

Sabzi polo ba mahi: Even the traditional holiday meal is a celebration of spring. Herbed rice with parsley, cilantro, dill, fresh green garlic sprouts, fenugreek leaves, and a splash of yellow saffron is paired with fried or grilled fish. In Iran, the fish is wild mahi sefid (white fish) from the Caspian Sea. Here in California, I prepare grilled salmon, which adds a nice pink color to the white, green, and yellow rice. I usually chop up twice as many herbs as needed for the rice and use half for another Norouz specialty: an herbed frittata called kuku sabzi. A recipe can be found here.

Seezdah bedar: Iranians love a picnic, and the more the merrier. On the last day of the Norouz holiday, everyone heads for the nearest park or into nature, laden with picnic baskets, blankets, and plenty of food to share. It is the thirteenth day of Farvardeen (the first month of the Iranian calendar) and bad luck to stay indoors. The haft seen is dismantled on this day—in our house, all the edible parts have long been consumed. Only the sabzeh remains, now yellowed and wilting, for it has been soaking up the family’s quarrels and bad vibes. According to tradition, you take these lentil sprouts outdoors and scatter them to the wind, dissipating all that negativity.

Persian New Year is about making a fresh start. Even the name, Norouz, mean “new day”. (And in case you’re wondering about my name, Noroozy, it is derived from Norouz.) But if you missed the equinox yesterday, never fear. You have thirteen more days to celebrate the rites of spring.

Eid-e shoma mobarak! Happy New Year!


  1. Wow, I never knew this. This would be such a great start for a story.

  2. What lovely traditions! Are those eggs on the haft seen platter? (Parsees in India use them in their rituals too so I was wondering if there's a connection.)

    I agree with Orlando. This event is a feast for the imagination!

    Happy new year!

  3. Orlando, strangely enough, this is the start of my latest murder mystery, Bad Hejab. It begins with the murder of an Iranian blogger on chahar shanbeh souri. Thanks for stopping by!

    Supriya, those are eggs. Cadbury chocolate eggs, in fact. Normally you paint eggs just like we do on Easter, but I'm lazy and put in chocolate eggs instead. That way I also cover another tradition, which is to put pastry or candy in the haft seen. That is supposed to ensure that the rest of the year will be sweet.

  4. It's funny, the moment I read the word Eid-e Norouz, I thought your last name had something to do with it! And the eggs!! So many nationalities in the world paint the eggs for various spring holidays - Russians do too, although Jews don't - so I always thought is was a Christian tradition. I guess it was a much older custom? I wonder what started it and when.

  5. I don't know where the egg painting tradition originated (or if the ancient Persians even added eggs to the haft seen), but it makes sense at a time when we're celebrating spring, renewal and new life.