To explain Navroz, we must first explain the universe: The Earth’s axis is tilted at about 23.5º, pointing different ends of the planet toward the sun at different times of the year. This is what causes seasons, here on Earth. In summer, your hemisphere is pointing toward the sun, making the days longer and hotter. In winter, your hemisphere is pointing away from the sun, making days shorter and colder. (For a more in-depth explanation of this phenomenon, check out this video from Crash Course). But what about the time in between? There is a time in between summer and winter where day and night are the same length. This day is called the equinox. Technically, they’re not exactly equal because the sun is big and light refracts in our atmosphere, but the sun can be considered above and below the horizon for equal amounts of time.
Nowadays, we have watches and calendars (and calendars on our watches) that help us tell what day and time it is. Before these inventions, people relied on the movement of the sun, moon, and stars in order to tell the time. So, a lot of people paid attention to celestial movements and events such as equinoxes and solstices were of high importance, especially in communities that rely on seasons for farming. With the advent of agriculture, humans started to rely on the seasons, so knowing when they would happen was super important. One of the ways Babylonians reminded themselves of the seasons was with Navroz (نوروز), meaning “new day”, celebrated on the equinox at the beginning of spring. In Persian religions, light also has a spiritual significance, so Navroz also marks the beginning of the season of light. Remember that Persia is in the northern hemisphere, so Navroz is in spring in Persia but in winter south of the equator.
For many cultures, including India, Persia, and even Ancient Rome, the calendar starts at the beginning of spring. The Earth is starting to warm up, last year’s harvest is running out, and people are getting ready to plant new crops. This is also the time that animals tend to make baby animals. Since it’s such as significant time of birth and rebirth, people have looked to the religious significance as well. Many cultures have stories of rebirth that take place around Navroz time. In Greek mythology, Adonis returns every year from the underworld to spend the summer with Aphrodite. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris became the ruler of the afterlife after being killed by his brother, Seth. And, of course, the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated every year with the coming of spring.
People who celebrate Navroz today often do so by planting seeds, ushering the birth of new plants (especially different kinds of wheat, which are native to the fertile crescent). In the West, people also celebrate by painting eggs, which symbolise rebirth in both Navroz and Easter traditions.
seven seen هفتسین
Another Navroz tradition is the seven seen (seen being the Persian letter س). This tradition involves setting a table with seven food items, each starting with the letter seen. The number seven has a special significance in the Zoroastrian tradition, which has been carried over to Islam (we’ll write a dafter page about it soon).
- Sprouts(سبزه) of wheat, seeds, or grass which are planted during Navroz celebrations symbolise rebirth. What’s eaten isn’t the full-grown plant, but rather the first sprouting of the seed. Wheat was one of the first domesticated plants of Persia/the Fertile Crescent and formed the backbone of ancient agriculture.
- Samanu (سمنو) is a warm pudding made from wheat. It’s made by soaking wheat for days and then cooking it overnight (usually the night before Navroz). The cooking of the pudding is an opportunity for the (traditionally women) cooks to come together and celebrate Navroz with stories and songs while everyone else is asleep. Because of the cooking process and the socialising surround the pudding, it’s considered to represent wealth and high status.
- Senjed (سنجد), wild olive (note: not actually an olive, just looks like one) grow on fragrant, silver trees, native to Persia. Because of their sweet taste and glittering appearance, the wild olives are considered to symbolise love.
- Seer (سیر), garlic, has been used as a medicine that could cure anything from heat stroke to vampirism across the ancient world. Nowadays, garlic has shown correlation with reducing colds and cancer in the upper digestive tract. For these reasons, garlic is considered a symbol of health.
- Seeb (سیب), apples, were probably the first tree to be domesticated. Originating around Persia, apples have been a significant part of ancient diets from Europe through Asia. Apples, with their shiny exterior and sweet interior are thought to symbolise beauty.
- Sumac (سماق) is a type of spice found in Persian and surrounding cuisines. It’s also used for dying and tanning, lending its deep reddish-purple colour. The colour of sumac reflects that of the sunrise, a symbol of the new day (نوروز).
- Serkeh (سرکه), vinegar, is made through a long fermentation process that can take up to a year. This process represents patience, as well as the veneration that comes with old age.
In the Zoroastrian tradition, Navroz isn’t only celebrated on the day but up to a week beforehand. The last Wednesday of the year is known as Red Wednesday (چهارشنبه سوری) or the Festival of Fire. Ancient Zoroastrians believe that spirits of the deceased would return to Earth in the last five days before Navroz. This way, those alive could give their deceased friends and family a proper farewell as they joined the seven immortals. Similar to Halloween, children would dress up in costumes and go door to door to receive treats. But, instead of saying “trick or treat”, Persian children would bang spoons and pots together, hence the name of the tradition: “Banging Spoons” (قاشق زنی).
Another tradition of Red Wednesday involves jumping over a bonfire. Fire, in the Zoroastrian tradition, has cleansing properties, so jumping over a fire before the new year can leave your soul feeling rejuvenated. A traditional poem accompanies the fire-jumping: “my yellow is yours; your red is mine.” In this case, the jumper is leaving their illness, their sadness, and their ill-will (yellow) in the fire while taking the warmth and energy (red) of the fire into themselves.
influence on Islam
Navroz far predates Islam with its roots stretching as far as the birth of civilisation. Navroz, specifically, is celebrated in Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion, was present in pre-Islamic Arabia and Zoroastrians were even included in the People of the Book. Navroz also commemorates two significant events in Meccan religious history. According to tradition, God destroyed the idols inside the Kaaba on Navroz, during the time of Abraham. Likewise, Muhammad and ‘Ali destroyed the Qurayshi idol in the Kaaba on Navroz twenty-two hundred years later. Both of these events can represent a rebirth of monotheism in Mecca, just as Navroz represents rebirth in its own tradition.
In the late 11th century, there was a Nizari Muslims shifted to Iran from the collapsing Fatimid Empire. Along with this shift, Nizaris adopted Persian as their official language, as well as many local traditions, including Navroz, which is still celebrated by Nizaris across the world.