NOWRŪZ (lit., "new day"), the Iranian national festival that celebrates the arrival of spring. A festival of renewal, hope, and happiness, Nowrūz begins on the first day of Farvardīn, the first month of the Iranian solar calendar, at the spring equinox, and continues for twelve days. It is the most widely celebrated, the longest, and the most colorful of Iranian festivals, and though inherited from Zoroastrian Persia, it is the only festival that is not confined to a single religious group.
The origins of Nowrūz are obscure. In popular legend its institution is associated mostly with Jamshēd, the mythical Iranian king. In Firdawsi's epic, the Shāh-nā mah (completed about 1000 ce), it is said that the feast commemorates Jamshēd's ascent into the skies in a chariot built by the demons whom he had subdued and forced into the service of mortals. Nowrūz appears, however, to have been originally a pagan pastoral festival that marked the transition from winter to summer: rites of fertility and renovation can be easily recognized in some of its customs.
Zarathushtra (Zoroaster), the ancient prophet of Iran, probably reconsecrated Nowrūz to his religion. In any event, like Mihragan, the festival that marked the end of summer, Nowrūz continued to be observed in Zoroastrian Iran with full vigor; the two celebrations formed the festive poles of the Iranian calendar year. Nowrūz was immediately preceded by Hamaspathmaēdaya, a major religious feast that fell on the thirtieth day of the last month of the year (March 20) and was dedicated to the spirits of the departed, the fravashis. These spirits were thought to come down to the earth during this period to visit their abodes and to dwell with their families. In anticipation of the fravashi s's arrival, houses were cleaned, and food and drink were laid out for them. Nowrūz thus had a sober and commemorative prelude, informed by the remembrance of the departed family members, ancestors, and pious believers. Among the Zoroastrians the two festivals eventually merged, and the Farvardigan holidays came to comprise both.
In Zoroastrian Iran, Nowrūz proper began at dawn as the fravashi s withdrew and the old year faded away. For the Zorastrians the festival also celebrated the creation of fire and its celestial guardian, Artavahisht. On the first day of spring, prayers were offered to Rapithwan, a helper of the powerful deity Mehr (Avestan, Mithra). Rapithwan, who personified noon, the ideal time, would withdraw underground during the winter months to protect the roots of plants and springs of water from frost, a creation of the demons. At Nowrūz, he would appear above ground to usher in the summer season.
The Achaemenid kings (559–330 bce) celebrated Nowrūz above all at Persepolis, their capital, and some scholars have hypothesized that the parade of gift-bearers from various nations depicted in the bas-reliefs of the palace walls represent Nowrūz ceremonies. Under the Sassanids (226–652 ce), Nowrūz, together with Mihragān, was to some extent secularized. People cleaned their houses, put on new clothes, visited relatives and friends, exchanged gifts, and engaged in merrymaking with wine, music, and songs, especially the melodies composed for the occasion. Newly enthroned kings celebrated their official coronation on Nowrūz, and monarchs in general held court and at times remitted taxes. It is even recorded that kings were obliged to hold public court and answer any complaint against or addressed to them. Contemporary accounts as well as reports in early Islamic sources attest to the Sassanid kings' lavish celebration of Nowrūz and its colorful ceremonies and customs. Some of these tended to observe the number seven: for instance, seven kinds of seeds were grown in small containers as part of the festival rites and decoration, a custom still observed in the few remaining Zoroastrian villages in Iran. Furthermore, it is said that at Nowrūz seven kinds of grain, twigs from seven different trees, and seven silver coins were placed before the king. In the early twenty-first century, an essential and cherished decoration of Nowrūz is a collection of seven items whose names begin with the letter s in Persian (haft sīn ). Of ambiguous or obscure origin, these are most often apple, seeds of wild rue, samanu (a paste prepared by slowly cooking the sap of ground germinating wheat in water, oils, and flour), vinegar, sumac, garlic, silver coins, sorbapple, and fresh grass.
Stripped of its Zoroastrian connotations, Nowrūz survived the advent of Islam and continued as the Iranian national festival. The Abbasid caliphs celebrated with banquets of wine, song, music, and exhange of gifts. The Shīʿī Muslims of Iran, however, came to associate important religious events with Nowrūz. Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī quotes a number of traditions from the Shīʿī imams (in Biḥar al-anwār, volume 14, the section on nayrīz ), who report that it was on Nowrūz that Adam was created, that God made a covenant with humankind, that Abraham destroyed the pagan idols, that the prophet Muḥammad took his young son-in-law ʿᾹli on his shoulders to smash the idols in Mecca, and, most important of all, that he chose ʿᾹli as his rightful successor. The Muslim rulers of Iran, continuing the Sassanid tradition, celebrated Nowrūz with pomp and circumstance. The ceremonies generally included the recitation of congratulatory panegyrics, feasting, the reception of dignitaries, music and dance, and the exchange of gifts. From about the middle of the sixteenth century, when Iran came into the possession of firearms, the onset of Nowrūz was announced in larger cities by the firing of cannon.
As a religious feast, Nowrūz apparently began as a one-day celebration, but calendar reforms, combined with the popular tendency of observing the festivals according to the old calendar, seem to have stretched it first to six days, with its division in Sassanid times into Lesser Nowrūz (the first day) and Greater Nowrūz (the sixth day), and eventually to its present length. In or about the year 1006, the first of Farvardīn fell on the first day of spring, and in 1079 a calendar reform, in which the poet ʿUmar (Omar) Khayyām participated, fixed the date of the feast on the first of Farvardīn and arranged for keeping it constant by intercalating one day before the New Year festival every four years.
Preparations for Nowrūz begin well in advance of the holiday. Although there are local variations, some practices are fairly general. A week or two before the New Year, grains of wheat or lentils are soaked in water and, after they germinate, are spread over a dish to grow. The resulting fresh mass of green blades (sabzeh ) is an essential and symbolic decoration of the festival. In addition to the sabzeh and the haft-sīn, the Nowrūz table is adorned with a mirror, a copy of the holy book of the household's faith, a bowl of water in which green leaves or flower petals may float, and colored eggs, as well as fruits, fresh herbs, cakes, and candies. The "turn" of the year is awaited with eagerness and excitement, particularly by the young. A few moments before the solemn announcement of Nowrūz, the members of the family, by this time all bathed and clad in new or clean clothes, gather around the table, ready to embrace and exchange greetings and gifts. The visiting of relatives and friends is a common Nowrūz activity. In villages young men often engage in wrestling and other athletic games.
On the thirteenth day of Nowrūz, the ceremonies are brought to an end with a picnic in the countryside. The sabzeh must now be taken out and thrown into running water, which is thought to take away with it any bad luck of the previous year. Wishes are made, especially by young girls, for a happy future. The Parsis of India, who left Iran in the tenth century in order to preserve their Zoroastrian faith, also continue to celebrate Nowrūz (jamshedī Navroz ) as a major feast.
For Nowrūz in ancient Iran and its religious significance see Mary Boyce's accounts in the Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3, pt. 2, edited by me (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 792–815 (esp. pp. 792–800) and the bibliographical section; for Nowrūz in Islamic sources and bibliography see Nadir Karimiyan Sardashti and ʾAlireza ʾAskari Chavardi, Kitabshenasi-e Nowrūz (Bibliography of Nowrūz) (Tehran, 2000). Descriptions of current Nowrūz ceremonies with bibliography will be found in my "Now Ruz: The New Year Celebrations in Persia," Iran Review 4 (March 1959): 12–15; Henri Massé, Croyances et coutumes persanes suivi de contes et chansons populaires (Paris, 1938), pp. 145–162; Abollah Mostofi, The Administrative and Social History of the Qajar Period [The Story of My Life], translated by Nayer Mostofi Glenn, 3 vols. (Costa Mesa, Calif., 1997), vol. 1, pp. 200–205; A. Shapur Shahbazi, "Haft sin," in E. Yarshater, ed., Encyclopaedia Iranca IX, 2002, pp. 524–526; and Shabazi's "Nowrūz," available at www.Iranica.com. Jivanji Jamshedji Modi gives an account of the rites and ceremonies of the Farvardīgān, the holidays for the remembrance of the dead, among the Parsis (Zoroastrians) of India in his Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees, 2d ed. (Bombay, 1937). On the historical development and religious purport of Nowrūz in general, with comparative data, see Josef Marquart's "Das Nawrūz, seine Gechichte und seine Bedeutung," in Dr. Modi Memorial Volume (Bombay, 1930), pp. 709–765, translated by Manilel Patel as "The Navraz: Its History and Its Significance," Journal of K. R. Cama Oriental Institute (Bombay) 31 (1937): 1–51; Konstantin Inostrantsev (Inostrancev), Sasanidskie etiudy (St. Petersburg, 1909), pp. 82–109; Arthur Christensen's Les types du premier homme et du premier roi dans l'histoire légendaire des Iraniens (Leiden, 1934), pp. 85ff., 138–160, and Mary Boyce, above. For calendrical aspects of Nowrūz, see S. H. Taqīzādah's Gāhshumārī dar Īrān-i qadīm (Tehran, 1937), pp. 53ff., 115ff., 154–157, and 191.
Ehsan Yarshater (1987 and 2005)