This article by Dr. Ali A. Jafary was posted in the CAIS (Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies) venue hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav.
Norooz (Noruz, Nowruz, Nevruz, Newruz, Navruz) in Persian means “New [-year]-day”. It is the beginning of the year for the peoples of Iran (Greater Iran, including: Afghanistan, Arran (nowadays the Republic of Azerbaijan) and Central Asian Republics.Turkey too has decided to declare Norooz a holiday. It is also celebrated as the New Year by the people of the Iranian stock, particularly the Kurds a, in the neighboring countries of Georgia, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
It begins precisely with the beginning of spring on vernal equinox, on or about March 21. Tradition takes Norooz as far back as 15,000 years–before the last ice age. King Jamshid (Yima or Yama of the Indo-Iranian lore) symbolizes the transition of the Indo-Iranians from animal hunting to animal husbandry and a more settled life in human history. Seasons played a vital part then. Everything depended on the four seasons. After a sever winter, the beginning of spring was a great occasion with mother nature rising up in a green robe of colorful flowers and the cattle delivering their young. It was the dawn of abundance. Jamshid is said to be the person who introduced Norooz celebrations.
Avestan and later scriptures show that Zarathushtra improved, as early as 1725 BCE., the old Indo-Iranian calendar. The prevailing calendar was luni-solar. The lunar year is of 354 days. An intercalation of one month after every thirty months kept the calendar almost in line with the seasons. Zarathushtra, the Founder of the Good Religion, himself an astronomer, founded an observatory and he reformed the calendar by introducing an eleven-day intercalary period to make it into a luni-solar year of 365 days, 5 hours and a fraction. Later the year was made solely a solar year with each month of thirty days. An intercalation of five days was, and a further addition of one day every four years, was introduced to make the year 365 days, 5 hours, and a fraction. Still later, the calendar was further corrected to be a purely solar year of 365 days 5 hr 48 min 45.5 sec. The year began precisely with the vernal equinox every time and therefore, there was no particular need of adding one day every four years and there was no need of a leap year. This was [and still is] the best and most correct calendar produced that far.
Some 12 centuries later, in 487 B.C.E., Darius the Great of the Achaemenian dynasty celebrated the Norooz at his newly built Persepolis in Iran. A recent research shows that it was a very special occasion. On that day, the first rays of the rising sun fell on the observatory in the great hall of audience at 06-30 a.m., an event which repeats itself once every 1400-1 years. It also happened to coincide with the Babylonian and Jewish new years. It was, therefore, a highly auspicious occasion for the ancient peoples. The Persepolis was the place, the Achaemenian king received, on Norooz, his peoples from all over the vast empire. The walls of the great royal palace depict the scenes of the celebrations.
We know the Iranian under the Parthian dynasty celebrated the occasion but we do not know the details. It should have, more or less, followed the Achaemenian pattern. During the Sasanian time, preparations began at least 25 days before Norooz. Twelve pillars of mud-bricks, each dedicated to one month of the year, were erected in the royal court. Various vegetable seeds–wheat, barley, lentils, beans, and others–were sown on top of the pillars. They grew into luxurious greens by the New Year Day. The great king held his public audience and the High Priest of the empire was the first to greet him. Government officials followed next. Each person offered a gift and received a present. The audience lasted for five days, each day for the people of a certain profession. Then on the sixth day, called the Greater Norooz, the king held his special audience. He received members of the Royal family and courtiers. Also a general amnesty was declared for convicts of minor crimes. The pillars were removed on the 16th day and the festival came to a close. The occasion was celebrated, on a lower level, by all peoples throughout the empire.
Since then, the peoples of the Iranian culture, whether Zartoshtis, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, or others, have celebrated Norooz precisely at the time of vernal equinox, the first day of the first month, on about March 21.
Today, the ceremony has been simplified. Every house gets a thorough cleaning almost a month before. Wheat, barley, lentils, and other vegetables seeds are soaked to grow on china plates and round earthenware vessels some ten days in advance, so that the sprouts are three to four inches in height by Norooz. A table is laid. It has a copy of the sacred book (the Gathas for Zarathushtrians), picture of Zarathushtra (again for Zarathushtrians), a mirror, candles, incense burner, bowl of water with live gold fish, the plates and vessels with green sprouts, flowers, fruits, coins, bread, sugar cone, various grains, fresh vegetables, colorfully painted boiled eggs like the “Easter eggs,” and above all, seven articles with their names beginning in Persian with the letter s or sh. The usual things with s are vinegar, sumac, garlic, samanu (consistency of germinating wheat), apple, senjed (sorb?), and herbs. Those with sh include wine, sugar, syrup, honey, candy, milk, and rice-pudding. Here in North America, these may be substituted with English words that would alliterate, rhyme, or make mouths water. The seven articles are prominently exhibited in small bowls or plates on the table. The whole table, beautifully laid, symbolizes the Message and the Messenger, light, reflection, warmth, life, love, joy, production, prosperity, and nature. It is, in fact, a very elaborate thanksgiving table for all the good beautifully bestowed by God.
Family members, all dressed in their best, sit around the table and eagerly await the announcement of the exact time of vernal equinox over radio or television. The head of the family recites the Norooz prayers, and after the time is announced, each member kisses the other and wishes a Happy Norooz. Elders give gifts to younger members. Next the rounds of visits to neighbors, relatives, and friends begin. Each visit is reciprocated. Zarathushtra’s Birthday and Norooz festival are celebrated by Zartoshtis at social centers on about 6 Farvardin (26 March). Singing and dancing is, more or less for the first, a daily routine. The festivity continues for 12 days, and on the 13th morning, the mass picnic to countryside begins. It is called sizdeh-be-dar, meaning “thirteen-in-the-outdoors.” Cities and villages turn into ghost towns with almost all the inhabitants gone to enjoy the day in woods and mountains along stream and riversides. People sing, dance, and make merry. Girls of marriageable age tie wild grass tops into knots and make a wish that the following Norooz may find them married and carrying their bonny babies.