No Ruz, new day or New Year as the Iranians call it, is a celebration of spring Equinox. It is the most cherished of all the Iranian festivals and is celebrated by all. This occasion has been renowned in one form or another by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. What we have today as No Ruz with its’ uniquely Iranian characteristics has been celebrated for at least 3000 years and is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of the Zoroastrian belief system of the Sassanian period. This was the religion of Ancient Persia before the advent of Islam in 7th century AD. The familiar concepts of Hell, Heaven, Resurrection, coming of the Messiah, individual and last judgment were for the first time incorporated into this belief system. They still exist in Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions. In order to understand No Ruz, we have to know about Zoroastrians’ cosmology.
In their ancient text, ‘Bundahishn’ foundation of creation, we read that The Lord of Wisdom (Ahura Mazda) residing in the eternal light was not God. He created all that was good and became God. The Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), residing in the eternal darkness created all that was evil and became the Hostile Spirit (The word anger in English comes from the same origin). Everything that produced life, protected and enriched it was regarded as good. This included all forces of nature beneficial to humans. Earth, waters, sky, animals, plants, justice, honesty, peace, health, beauty, joy and happiness were regarded as belonging to the good forces. All that threatened life and created disorder belonged to the hostile spirits.
The two worlds created did not have a material form but the essence of everything was present. The two existed side by side for three thousand years, but completely separate from each other. At the end of the third millennium, the Hostile Spirit saw a light, wanted it and attacked the good world. This was the beginning of all troubles we face now.
The Lord of Wisdom in order to protect his world created the material world “Gaeity”, (‘Geety’ in modern Persian). This material world was created at seven different stages. The first creation was the sky, a big chunk of stone high above. The second creation was the first ocean at the bottom. Earth a big flat dish sitting on the ocean was the third. The next three creations were the prototypes of all life forms. The first plant, the first animal, a bull and the first human Gayo-maretan (Kiomarth), both male and female. The seventh creation was fire and sun together.
The struggle between the good and evil continues for 12000 years. There are four periods, each for 3000 years. At the last phase, several saviors come and the last one Saoshyant will save the world. When he comes there is a resurrection, walking over the Chinvat Bridge (Sarat Bridge in Quran) and last judgment. We recognize this figure as Time Lord (Imam Zaman) in Iranian version of Shiite Islam.
In order to protect his creations the Lord of Wisdom also created six holy immortals ‘Amesha Spenta’ one for each creation. Khashtra (Sharivar), the protector of sky, Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht) protected fire. Vahu Manah (Bahman) for all animals, Haurvatat (Khordad) protected all waters, Spenta Armaiti (Esphand) a female deity protector of mother earth and Ameratat (Amurdad) supported all plant life. Ahura Mazda himself became the protector of all humans and the holy fire.
There was one problem with this material world, it did not have a life cycle. The sun did not move. There were no days or nights and no seasons. The three prototypes of life were sacrificed. From the plant came the seeds of all plants. The bull produced all animals and from the human came the first male and female. The rest of the humanity was created from their union. The cycle of life started. Sun moved, there was day, night and the seasons. This was called the first No Ruz.
The Lord of Wisdom also created guardian angels (Forouhars) for all living beings. Every human had one as long as they stayed with the good forces. As we see in the myth of Azydahak in Avesta, the Zoroastrians’ holy book. We know this figure as Zahak in ‘Shahnameh’. A prince, he chooses the Hostile Spirit as his protector. He was made a king, ruled for 999 years and became immortal.
Zoroaster (Zardosht) the architect of this cosmology introduced many feasts, festivals and rituals to pay homage to the seven creations, the holy immortals and Ahura Mazda. Seven were amongst the most important. They are known as Gahambars, feasts of obligation. The last and the most elaborate was No Ruz, celebrating the Lord of Wisdom and the holy fire at the time of spring equinox.
The oldest archaeological record for No Ruz celebration comes from the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2500 years ago. They created the first major empire in the region and built Persepolis complex (Takhte Jamshid) in central Iran. This magnificent palace/temple complex was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 334 BC.
Achaemenians had four major residences one for each season. Persepolis was their spring residence and the site for celebrating the New Year. Stone carvings show the king seated on his throne receiving his subjects, governors and ambassadors from various nations under his control. They are presenting him with gifts and paying homage to him. We do not know too much about the details of the rituals. We do know those mornings were spent praying and performing other religious rituals. Later on during the day the guests would be entertained with feasts and celebrations.
We also know that the ritual of sacred marriage took place at this palace. An ancient and common ritual in Mesopotamia, the king would spend the first night of the New Year with a young virgin. Any offspring produced from this union would be sent back to the temples and they would normally end up as high-ranking religious officials. There is no evidence that this was practiced later on and was part of the New Year rituals.
What we have today as No Ruz goes back to the Sassanian period. They formed the last great Persian Empire before the advent of Islam. Their celebrations would start ten days prior to the New Year. They believed the guardian angels (Forouhars) and spirits of the dead would come down to earth within these ten days to visit their human counterparts. A major spring-cleaning was carried out to welcome them with feasts and celebrations. Bonfires would be set 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 to make it last.
The ancient Zoroastrians would also celebrate 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 Ruze 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. In Sassanian period the New Year would be celebrated for 21 days and on the 19th day, there would be another major festival. At all times there were feasts, prayers, dance, theatre, and jokers. The Haji Firouz tradition might be what is left of the ancient festivities. For this occasion, men color their face black, dress in colorful outfits and appear in public dancing and singing joyful and merry songs.
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 emphasize 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 Quran, Muslim’s holy book just before the start of the New Year.
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 presents (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 Espand a popular incense is burnt, 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 till they are finished.
The first few days are spent visiting older members of the family, relatives and friends. Children receive presents; 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. ‘Kokou Sabzi’, a mixture of fresh herbs with eggs fried or baked is also served. The next day rice and noodles ‘Reshteh Polou’ will be consumed. Regional variations exist and very colorful 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 each of the items corresponded to one of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. Today they are changed and modified but some 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. The 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 aspect as a feast of resurrection and of eternal life to come.
Wheat or lentil representing new growth is grown in a flat dish a few days before the New Year and is called ‘Sabzeh’ (meaning green shoots). Decorated with colorful ribbons it is kept until the last day and will be disposed of on ‘Sizdeh be dar’, the 13th day while outdoors. A few live goldfish (the most easily obtainable animal) are placed in a fishbowl. In the old days they would be returned to the riverbanks, but today most people will keep them till they die. Mirrors are placed on the spread with lit candles as a symbol of fire. Zoroastrians today place the lit candle in front of the mirror to increase the reflection of the light. Mirrors were significant items in Zoroastrian symbolism art and architecture, and still are an integral part of most Iranian celebrations including marriage ceremony. They are used extensively in Iranian mystical literature as well and represent self-reflection. All Iranian burial shrines are still extensively decorated with mirrors, a popular decorative style of the ancient times. Light is regarded as sacred by the Zoroastrians and the use of mirrors multiplies the reflection of the light.
The wine was always present. Since the Muslim conquest, it has been replaced by vinegar since alcohol is banned in Islam. The egg a universal symbol of fertility corresponding to the mother earth, Sepanta Armaiti is still present. The eggs are hard-boiled and traditionally are colored in red, green or yellow, colors favored by Zoroastrians. Recently following the Easter Egg tradition, any color is used and they are elaborately decorated. The eggs are offered to children as treats. Fresh garlic is used to warn off bad omen. This is a modern introduction. There is no evidence that it was used in this context before.
However, the ancient Iranians would grow seven different herbs for the New Year and garlic might have been one of those. Samano a thick brownish paste is present today. It is a nutritious meal and could have been part of the feasts. It is also possible that it has replaced Haoma. This is a scared herbal mix known for its healing properties. It was a major cult on its own with many rituals and ceremonies. The cult is still performed by the Zoroastrians today but is abandoned by the rest of the Iranians. Coins symbolizing wealth and prosperity, fruits and special sweets and baked goods are present as well.
For the ancient Iranians, No Ruz was a celebration of life. Forces of nature completely beyond them dominated people in those times. They formed a union with these forces to protect themselves. Through this union, they created a balance and maintained the cosmic order Asha. Without it there would be chaos, the world of the Hostile Spirit (Ahriman). The Zoroastrians were and are required to have the same mind, the same voice and act the same way as their god the Lord of Wisdom. They are expected to only think of good things, speak the good words and act the good deeds. This way they managed to main their balance and No Ruz was an occasion when life with all its’ glory was celebrated and cherished.
For modern Iranians, No Ruz is a feast of renewal and freshness; a time to visit relatives, friends and to pay respect to the older members of the family clan. By thorough house cleaning the physical space is purified and merrymaking efforts create comfort and happiness becomes a celebration in itself. This is a reminiscence of the ancient traditions when all forces of Joy were regarded as holy and venerated. Festivities will go on for 13 days and will end on the 13th day known as ‘Seezdeh be Dar’ which literally means; getting rid of the omen of the 13th day.
At the last day of the New Year celebrations, the 13th of the first month, it is the universal custom in Iran to pass as many hours as possible out of doors. All people will leave their homes to go to the parks or local plains for a very festive picnic. It is a must to spend this day in nature and the occasion is called ‘Seezdeh be dar’ (getting rid of the omen of the 13th day). This was not celebrated in this manner before Islam and might be several rituals in one. It is possible that this day was devoted to the deity Tishtrya (Tir) protector of rain. In Zoroastrian calendar, each day is named after a deity and this particular day in the month of Farvardin is named after Tishtrya. In the past, there were outdoor festivities to pray to this Eyzad and ask for adequate rain that was essential for agriculture. Iranians today regard this day as a bad omen and believe that by going into the fields and parks they avoid the misfortunes that could befall on them. This notion is contrary to the Zoroastrian doctrine where all days were regarded as sacred and were named after venerated deities. However, according to popular belief, Imam Jaffar Sadegh, the 7th Shiite Imam has labeled the 13th day of the month as a day with unfortunate consequences, therefore Iranians could have combined the two. By going outdoors into the fields the ancient festivities were observed while the Islamic ideas are also incorporated into the occasion.
All kinds of food and delicacies are prepared with tea, local drinks, fruits, bread, cheese and fresh herbs. The wealthy Iranians will spend the day in their country homes and estates. The occasion is a communal one and all close relatives and friends will participate. Wheat or barley shoots (Sabzeh) that are grown especially for New Year and are kept throughout the festivities are discarded in nature on this day. The picnic ends with the setting of the sun. The occasion has no religious significance and is celebrated by all. With the more modern Iranians, there is music and dancing while most people will play games and sports. It is also believed that unwed girls can wish for a husband by going into the fields and tying a knot between green shoots, symbolizing a marriage knot.