Having a dual nationality means Yasamin Saeidi sees in two New Years; once at the end of December, and then again in March for the Persian New Year, or ‘Eid Norooz’ which literally translates to ‘new day celebrations’.
11:02am today marks the Spring Equinox and thus the start of the Persian New Year.
My parents, Pirooz and Afsi Saeidi originate from Iran. They moved to the UK in 1985, and settled with my sister and I in Stafford in 1996 after living in Sheffield and Merseyside.
Their friends, Kombiz and Simean Layeghi settled in Stafford together in 1999 and have two children.
As I have spent my whole life in the UK, they have a much deeper understanding of how the celebrations carried out in Iran compare to marking Persian New Year here in Staffordshire.
The 3,000 year old 13 day celebration marks the beginning of the year in the Iranian calendar, which unlike here is the first day of spring March 21.
Therefore, there is an emphasis on fresh starts, and a feeling of ‘out with the old, in with the new’.
“It’s turning to spring, the air is different. The atmosphere on the streets is very lively, people are smiling, everybody’s happy. All the flowers and blossoms are coming out, so everything is new and green,” says Pirooz.
As the spring sees in fresh, blossoming flowers, you too would dress yourself in new clothes from top to toe for the New Year, as well as having a spring clean of your home.
Another vital preparation is setting what is known as the ‘Haft Sin’ which, in a similar vein to Christmas trees, is the focal point of celebrations.
Haft Sin translates in English to ‘the seven S’s’, as typically, it is a table set with seven items beginning with the letter S, each representing a divinity.
These original items are; ‘seer’– garlic, representing medicine, ‘seeb’– apple, representing health and beauty, ‘serkeh’– vinegar, symbolising old age and patience, ‘sabzeh’– grown wheat or lentils, symbolising rebirth, ‘senjet’– a dried fruit representing love and ‘somaq’– a Middle Eastern ground dried berry, symbolising the colour of sunrise.
With these as the core elements, the rest of the table’s decorations will vary throughout different households. Other items include goldfish to symbolise life, gold coins as a sign of wealth and prosperity, painted eggs to represent fertility and hyacinth flowers to symbolise the coming of spring, as well as Iranian sweets and poetry books.
This colourful array of items on display reflects on the vitality that spring brings.
Afsi reminisces: “The atmosphere is electric, it’s lovely, and it brings life.” “Everywhere is just gorgeous; it’s just such a nice feeling in the air,” adds Simean.
The beginning and the end of the 13 days of the celebrations are marked by ‘Chaharshambeh Suhri’ and ‘Sizdah Bedar’ respectively.
Chaharshambeh Suhri’, translates literally to ‘Wednesday festivities’ and refers to the last Wednesday of winter.
This day involves bonfires and jumping over dried twigs whilst making wishes which Afsi says represents “burning the bad things of the year behind and starting afresh.” A tradition carried out on this day is called ‘ghashogh zani’, which translates to ‘banging of the spoon’. In disguise, children would visit peoples’ homes whilst banging a wooden spoon against a metal pot.
Similarly to trick or treat, some would give them sweets or money, some nothing, and others would even put rubbish into the pot.
‘Sizdah Bedar’, which translates to going out on the 13th, marks the final day of the celebrations.
“As 13 is a superstitious number, the idea is to get out, to break the bad omen,” explains Pirooz.
On this day, people make knots in the sabzeh grown for the Haft Sin whilst making a wish before throwing it into running water to make it come true.
“People stay out all day, they play and have picnics, and it’s just all about celebrating the end of the 13 days of events, it is fantastic.
It brings me such happy memories,” smiles Simean fondly.
“It was a bittersweet feeling because it was celebration, food, and everyone together, but thinking of tomorrow morning going back to school, and the schools were notorious for flooding you with homework!” laughs Pirooz.
Money and gifts play a part in the celebrations; crisp new notes are dished out to family members, but not necessarily large amounts, as it is more about the gesture.
“If you went to somebody who was slightly poorer, you gave more money and this was a time where people were more giving,” says Kombiz.
“I remember getting together with my cousins; we’d go and spend our Eid money,” smiles Simean, “but I think it’s more about being together than giving each other presents.” “It’s a lovely family gathering,” agrees Afsi, “visiting the relatives you might not see during the year.” The tradition is to pay a visit to the eldest members of the family first, and for them to return the visit over the course of the 13 day celebrations.
The only time this tradition would be broken is if a member of the family lost someone, in which case they would become the priority and they’d be given new, brightly coloured clothing to bring them out of mourning.
Kombiz recalls one custom his father carried out which he now carries on. He would go outside to come in at the turn of the equinox, ensuring that the first person to enter the house in the New Year is bringing happiness into the family.
It is a time of joy, singing and dancing in many ways not dissimilar to Christmas, and whilst we have Father Christmas, Persian New Year has Hoji Firooz – a similar character with funny clothes and a tambourine to represent the merriment of the time.
As is custom to have a turkey dinner here at Christmas, Persian New Year too has traditional meals attached to it.
The one that we have always consumed is a dish called ‘sabzi polo’. This translates to ‘herb rice’ and as with many Iranian dishes; it is full of delicate aromatic flavours.
There are clear comparisons with the European New Year as well, with Kombiz citing the emotional and scientific significance of counting down to the moment of the New Year as a vital part of celebrations.
Iran is, Pirooz explains, “a country with many different cultures.” Much like the UK, it is a country with a variety of dialects (the main language being Farsi), different cultural procedures and a variety of religions.
The way it is celebrated may vary slightly across the country, but for Iranians, New Year is a time for all of these backgrounds to come together.
A common misconception is that it is a religious celebration.
“Everybody celebrates it equally, no matter what religion,” says Pirooz, “it’s merely cultural and historic and that’s, I think, the good thing about it.” “There’s no religion behind it at all. It is unity of the Iranian people,” agrees Kombiz.
“To me it’s more of a national celebration than anything else. It’s just about Iran, just about being Iranian so to us it’s a big thing,” adds Simean.
This is especially important now with the way that Iran is portrayed in the west.
“There’s a big division between the picture in the media and what we are about” says Simean.
One common fallacy about Iran is that it is an Arabic country. “Iran is not an Arabic country; it’s a separate culture,” says Afsi.
Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in the 1970s, there have been attempts to make changes to celebratory practices and for the word ‘eid’ to be attached to a separate religious festival instead.
Despite this, Iranians have been trying their best to keep traditional activities going.
However, Afsi admits that it can be difficult to keep up the procedures living away from her home country.
In Iran there is a two week national holiday, and the number of countries recognising the holiday is steadily growing, already including Afghanistan, Tajikstan and India.
Here, however, there is no acknowledgment of the holiday, and as the equinox could come at any time of the day, it is potentially challenging to mark the New Year with traditional customs.
"Back when we were little, it didn’t matter what time it was, everybody did gather around the table at that time and welcomed the New Year in. But celebrating here is a bit difficult because we don’t feel that excitement or atmosphere that we felt in Iran. Not many people even know about it,” says Afsi.
Simean agrees but suggests that they do try their best to celebrate in every way that they can, and last year Kombiz organised a Persian New Year gathering in Olives in Stone a Mediterranean restaurant with Iranian owners.
It’s not in our culture to have a party like this; it was because we miss our family, that’s why we did it. In order to replace the culture in Iran, the popular thing is to have a party and then at least you will see your friends,” says Kombiz.
Staffordshire’s community of Iranians got together to enjoy traditional Persian cuisine and to see in the New Year together and Kombiz is hoping to arrange something similar this year.
“Luckily enough for us, the equinox was 11 at night last year. After so many years, we were among a lot of Iranians when actually the equinox came in, it was very nice,” says Afsi.
Kombiz, Simean and my parents all do their best to spread awareness amongst their English friends, by taking Iranian sweets in to work and inviting friends over to see the Haft Sin. When I first moved to Stafford, my new school welcomed me by setting a Haft Sin with me in the classroom.
After celebrations were shown on BBC Persian and President Obama delivered a New Year’s message to Iran, recognition of Persian New Year does seem to be rising.
“It’s a very positive time,” says Afsi, “it would be much more special if it was as well known as Chinese New Year. It’s a wonderful period and I’m hoping for more awareness so we can share it with more people.”