By Abdol-Hossein Zarrinkoub (1922-1999)

[Iranian Historian and specialist in Oriental literature, he is professor of History at the University of Tehran and the author of more than thirty books. His latest work is a study on the Persian poet hafez]

All Iranians, whatever their religious beliefs, language or origins and wherever they live, are strongly attached to Now Rouz (New Year). This festival, which does not feature in the Islamic lunar calendar, begins the solar year at the spring equinox, 21 March. Lasting around two weeks, it is the longest of all Iranian feasts and its rites are the richest in symbolism. The ceremonial includes customs from pre-lslamic festivals and rites introduced by people of non-Iranian origin, such as the Jews, and even borrowings from rites practiced elsewhere.

Two weeks before Now Rouz, each household traditionally grows a plate of sprouts of wheat, barley or lentils as omens of a good harvest or as tokens of fruitfulness in the future. This significant ritual is followed by two important celebrations which mark the closing days of the year and prepare for Now Rouz proper. At nightfall on "Ember Wednesday" (Tchaharshamba-souri) a bonfire of brambles and other dry plants is lit. Men and women, old and young leap over the flames shouting "Fire that burns! Fire! Fire! May your red come to me and my yellow go to you!" The light of the flames symbolizes the Sun. By challenging the set- ting Sun to shine more brightly and to compete with the fire, they urge it to throw off its winter torpor. Once the fire has gone out, earthenware pots and vases filled with water, and a variety of other objects, are hurled from the top of the house to shouts of "Dard-o bala! Dard-o balaf!" ("Pain and unhappiness!"). Wednesday being traditionally considered as a day of ill-omen, in this way misfortune is averted and unhappiness symbolically banished from the house.

On the same day, people try to foresee the future. The omens are read in various ways. Women who want a child, girls who have not yet found a husband, men who are hoping to conclude a successful business deal or even to get married, go out into the streets or stay behind closed doors eavesdropping on conversations between people they do not know. They interpret the words they overhear as omens of the future and make wishes and pray to try to ward off misfortune. Another custom is for women and children in disguise, their faces hidden, to go out into the streets at twilight carrying an empty receptacle and bang on doors with a spoon. They say nothing but go on knocking until someone opens a door and gives them a present.

Purification and fireworks

The second end-of-year celebration, the "Day of Reckoning"(rouz-e barat) is the Iranian day of the dead. On the last Thursday of the year alms and gifts are distributed at the cemetery: money, food, halva or new clothes are given so that the poor can celebrate the feast. The house is cleaned from top to bottom-this is a vestige of a pre-lslamic festival. In this way the living seek to pay their debts to the departed and attract the benevolence of their ancestors. The "spring cleaning" (Khana Takani) done before New Year is more than just a cleaning operation. From cellar to attic, from carpets to bedding, everything must be made as good as new. A new life is dawning and the house must be symbolically purified and thoroughly cleansed as if it were a human body, by being carefully washed and by wearing new clothes.

For the New Year ceremonial, the plate of sprouting grain and the tray of the "seven sin" must be placed on the Now Rouz cloth in front of a mirror lit by as many candles as there are members of the household, a copy of the Qur'an, a bowl of milk, a bowl of yoghurt, and gifts of coins. While they are waiting for the New Year to begin, the parents and other older people pray that the year will be propitious and recite the Qur'an to bring blessings and happiness to the family. Immediately afterwards, sweetmeats are eaten. Their taste presages a happy year The tray of the "seven sin" contains seven products whose names in Persian, Turkish or Arabic begin with the letter sin, the initial letter of the Persian words for green (sabz) and white (sefid), colours which symbolize respectively the renewal of springtime and the purity that wards off demons. Today the tradition has changed: everyone can choose seven symbols representing renewal, creation, abundance and wealth. The number 7 is a sacred number, as it was for the Babylonians and the ancient Hebrews, linked to the idea of creation which runs through all the symbolism of Now Rouz.

On New Year's Eve, fireworks are set off in the courtyard of the house or on the terrace. They symbolize the combat between dark, gloomy winter and bright, joyful spring; the victory of fire over darkness, a reenactment of the moment when the world of shadows is attacked by the world of light, the moment of Creation.

On the morning of the big day the children are given gold coins, cakes and hard-boiled eggs that have been painted, decorated and wrapped as gifts. They have been cooked in a brew of onion peel, walnut shells or straw so that they are coloured green, brown or yellow. They symbolize the renewal of the world and they are a pledge of fruitfulness.

Return to paradise

The first thirteen days of the year are a time of rejoicing. Children think only of play and adults of visiting each other. The real purpose of these joyful days is to rediscover an original state of purity and equality. Relations with friends and neighbours begin anew. People visit everyone, the mighty and the humble. The period of mourning for those who died the previous year is ended. The straightjacket of convention is broken, though indulgence in licentiousness is not encouraged. Distances due to social rank are abolished. Everyone, rich and poor, enjoys the same kind of food and recreations and wears brightly- coloured new clothes. Work stops in fields and factories. All the rites performed at this time look back to a lost paradise, the original earthly paradise in which the divine breath infuses humankind with a feeling of spiritual fraternity and equality.

On the "Thirteenth day outside" (Sizdah bedar) the mount of the demon of cold is driven from the city. The cereals that have sprouted in the plate are thrown into the river after being examined by the elders in an attempt to predict the weather during the coming year.

This day inaugurates a happy New Year. Friends and neighbours usually organize a picnic in the countryside at which noodle soup or dishes of rice in sauce are eaten. People go and see the streams and rivers swollen with melted snow. The young play traditional games and sports, and the girls weave together fresh herbs, singing as they do so in a low voice: "The thirteenth day, next year, at my husband's, a baby in my armsl" (Sizdah bedar - sale degar - khana-ye shouhar - batcha baqual). No conflict should be initiated on that day. In all the rites of Now Rouz, whatever their origin, there is one constantly recurring feature: the conflict between light and darkness, in keeping with the old Zoroastrian dualism. It is no coincidence that legend should attribute the invention of this feast to Jamshid or Feridun, legendary kings and divine heroes who triumphed over the forces of darkness. But if Islam has kept up this Zoroastrian feast, it is because of the role it plays in the stabilization of the fiscal year and also because of its jovial and lively ceremonies which were highly esteemed at the courts of the caliphs and the sultans. The singing and music which always mark Now Rouz explain why the sufis are interested in this festival.