Tell us a bit about your expertise and background?
For over a decade, I have been a wedding officiant specializing in Persian/Iranian ceremonies. I am well-versed in the background and history of Persian/Iranian wedding traditions. As a bi-lingual and bi-cultural officiant, I work with couples to customize their ceremony while reflecting, highlighting, and celebrating both individuals and their heritage. These ceremonies are often filled with references to poetry, nature, love, and beauty.
Since Persian New Year is coming up, can you help our readers understand this celebration's significance to your community?
Iranians celebrate the change of every season. The Persian/Iranian New Year is a celebration of the rebirth of nature. It falls on the spring equinox, which is the first day of spring—this year it will be on Saturday, March 20th at 2:37 a.m. PST—the exact time that the sun will pass the equator. The Persian New Year is called Norouz (or Nowruz) and means “New Day.” This year, Norouz will begin the year 1400 in the Persian (Solar) Calendar.
What's the difference between the Sofreh for a Persian Wedding and for the Persian New Year?
Though they seem similar and may use some of the same objects (mirrors, candles, pastries, sweets, etc.), they are not necessarily related. Both have origins in the ancient Iranian traditions including Zoroastrianism but have evolved a great deal. The word “Sofreh” merely means “Spread.” So you can have a Sofreh for lunch (lunch spread) and a Sofreh for dinner (dinner spread), etc. The word for Persian wedding spread is “Sofreh Aghd” (Aghd means “contract” and “union” or “wedding”). The word for a Persian New Year spread is “Sofreh Haft Seen” (Haft Seen means seven S's).
How is Persian New Year celebrated?
Celebrations begin weeks prior to the New Year, with people clearing out the clutter, or “Khooneh Tekooni”—which literally means “moving the house” or a spring cleaning of sorts. Then on the last Wednesday of the year, Iranians will celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Souri, “fire festival” where they build bonfires and jump over them while chanting, “Fire, take away my sickness and give me of your brightness, energy, and health!”
On the day of the New Year, at the exact hour of the equinox, Iranians will stand around their Sofreh Haft Seen. Sofreh Haft Seen is to Norouz, as a Christmas tree is to Christmas. The Sofreh Haft Seen (literally meaning the spread of seven S’s) is a table or spread displaying seven items that begin with the letter “S” in Persian. These items are Sabzeh (wheat or lentil sprouts representing growth), Samanu (wheat germ pudding representing patience—because it takes forever to make), Senjed (dried fruit of the lotus, representing love), Serkeh (vinegar representing cleansing), Seeb (apple representing beauty), Sumac (a dried red powder representing the spice of life), and Seer (garlic representing protection). These seven items all come from nature. On the Sofreh Haft Seen there'll also be additional items; Sekkeh (coins representing wealth), Sonbol (Hyacinth flower representing the scent of heaven), mirror and candles (representing the spiritual world), gold fish (representing life), decorated eggs (representing fertility), a book (usually a holy book or a volume of Hafez poetry representing wisdom and the importance of literature in the Iranian culture), and a platter of special Persian pastries to be enjoyed with friends and family.
All these items will be arranged on a table and at the exact hour of the changing year, at the exact moment of the equinox, families will gather around this spread and wish each other well and prosperity for the new year. They will then hug and kiss and the older members will gift the younger ones with money! For the two weeks following the New Year, Iranians will visit one another, starting with those who are older, to pay their respects. On the 13th day after the New Year, Iranians will go out into nature and have a picnic—to do away with the negative associated with the number 13. After that, New Year festivities are over and everyone gets back to work and school.
What's a typical meal served during Persian New Year?
Almost all Iranian households will have Sabzi Polo ba Mahi which is herb-infused pilaf rice served with a side of fish (usually fried or smoked) and a side of herb frittata (kuku sabzi). Its believed that this meal represents prosperity and abundance, the herbs specifically point to regeneration and renovation.
What's your favorite thing about Persian New Year?
Every New Year, regardless of its cultural or historical background, is a new beginning. What's unique and beautiful about the Persian/Iranian New Year is that it falls on the first day of spring which is a rebirth of nature. I also love the rituals, especially displaying the Sofreh Haft Seen with its symbolism and beauty.
How will you be celebrating Persian New Year?
Pre-pandemic, we used to go to a number of annual “fire festival” celebrations held throughout the Bay Area (the largest one in Berkeley). Now that these gatherings are not taking place, we'll make several small fires (in foil containers) in our backyard and my family will jump over them to chant, “Fire take away my sickness and give me your vitality.” Of course, we'll have a Sofreh Haft Seen with all the items and we will wake up in the middle of the night (2:37 a.m. PST on March 20th) to wish each other well and hug before going back to sleep. Since there are no social gatherings and events, we'll connect with family and friends virtually and will have even larger gatherings from everyone all over the world being able to join. On the 13th day after Norouz, we will go out into nature and have a picnic.
How would you say Happy New Year in Farsi?
“Saal-eh No Mobarak”!
Is it Persian or Iranian?
Persian relates to ethnicity. Iranian relates to nationality, encompassing more people. Persian is also the name of the ethnic background of most Iranians. However, there are Iranians who are not Persian—they may be Gilaki, Kurdish, Azeri, Turkeman, etc. The country today is called Iran (pronounced e-run and not eye-ran). Historically, the land of current-day Iran was occupied by the Persian Empire—so that's where those terms come from. The name of the language is also Persian (or Farsi). Today, many Iranians who live outside of Iran will refer to themselves as Persian because of political reasons or the negative portrayal of Iran and its current government in the media.
Hero photo courtesy of Maloos Photography
To find out more about Nilou's work visit: nilouweddings.com