A time for New Beginnings: 

Nowruz, the Persian New Year

Spring inherently symbolizes rebirth. Nature awakens, the delicate blossoms adorning the once dry tree branches slowly unfold, pollen fills the air recalling supple snowflakes and a sudden electrifying energy pervades the streets of the cities we live in. 

Yearly, on the Spring Equinox, millions of people throughout Iran, Turkey, Syria and the Kurdish regions of Iraq plus their diasporas gather to celebrate the millennial tradition of Persian New Year, or Nowruz. 

Starting well before the moment when the sun crosses the equator and day and night are of equal length, the activities surrounding this holiday are all designed to symbolize rebirth and the connection between humanity and nature. Families get together and build the Haft-seen, a celebratory, altar-like table decorated by seven signature items, each holding deep meaning and value. 

To help us celebrate this mystical tradition, we asked six people from our community to answer 7 questions (like the symbols on the Haftseen) about their Nowruz rituals with us. What this day means for them, how it brings them closer to their families and how it helps them reconnect with their origins and roots. 

Ali Mehrdad – Eyewear designer and founder of Roberi & Fraud and Philò Eyerwear

What does Nowruz mean to you? 

Nowruz isn’t just the mark for the new persian year but it is always such a special time to spend time with family.
The fact that it’s at the start of spring literally feels like a new day is coming up, full of hope and optimism for the future.

How do you usually celebrate Nowruz? 

We usually get together with the family, all made up and in new clothes, listen to upbeat Persian music and take pictures. Then we wait on our phones until the official time is announced and kiss each other before taking more pictures.

Does your Haftseen have a theme?

My mom is usually the person in charge of the Haftseen, but I definitely think I’ve seen a theme every year, even if it’s just by her using different decor and plates. Sometimes my sister and I help out in the last stages to make sure it looks perfect to us too.

Where is it in your home?

We usually have it set up on the coffee table, which can sometimes be a disturbance because I won’t have space to park my bowl of mid-day cornflakes but also a nice, cozy feeling to come to while it’s set there.

Do you set it up with friends or family?

As far as I know the Haftseen is always set up with the family.

Have any of the items on your Haftseen table been in your family for a long time or does it have a special meaning? 

The Shahnameh that we lay out has been the one my parents received when they got married and have been using it during Nowruz every year since. Sometimes the goldfish survive a couple of Nowruz too, and are a nice reminder of the last years and all that has happened since but we have to get new goldfish this year. They didn’t survive COVID-19.

What is the best Nowruz memory you have? 

Just hanging out with the family and then making plans with our cousins and Persian friends, knowing they have taken the day off and are up to celebrate. It’s definitely a very happy day and holiday!

What does Nowruz mean to you? 

To me, Nowruz is the most tangible way I can connect with my family’s heritage and culture. It’s by far our biggest and most cherished celebration of the year, and I feel like each year, I learn something new about Nowruz’s many traditions. I grew up visiting Tehran until I was about 13, so I have vivid memories of celebrating there when I was young. Since then, we’ve celebrated at home in Toronto or with family in Paris, but each year I look forward to Nowruz’s traditions refreshing my memories of the beauty that Persian culture holds.

How do you usually celebrate Nowruz? 

I don’t think we have any Nowruz traditions that are particular to our family alone, but we always do our own version of چهارشنبه‌سوری‎ / chaharshanbe suri (scarlet Wednesday)—sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller. It’s also really important to us to gather with our entire family, visiting grandparents first thing in the morning and exchanging money and well wishes. We also paint eggs as a family while setting the Haftseen, a tradition I’ve loved since I was little. 

Does your Haftseen have a theme?

Our Haftseen doesn’t have a particular theme, but the matriarchs in my family definitely have their own particular ways of setting it, and their own small additions to it. For example, سنبل / sonbol (hyacinth) is an absolute must for my mom, it’s literally always the first thing she mentions when it comes to our Haftseen. شمع / sham (candles) are really important to ours as well—the way it casts light over the whole table. 

Where is it in your home?

This year, we decided to set our Haftseen in our living room—front and centre. We wanted to soak up all of the Haftseen’s energy in the room we spend the most time in.

Do you set it up with friends or family?

I’ve grown up setting our Haftseen with my mom and grandmother and still do. My younger brother usually plays a big part in our Nowruz and Haftseen, but he studies in Milan and unfortunately it’s tricky to travel back and forth at the moment, so we’ll celebrate with him over FaceTime. 

Have any of the items on your Haftseen table been in your family for a long time or does it have a special meaning?

The dishes and trays we use to set our Haftseen are passed down from my grandmother’s side of the family! 

What is one dish that is never missing from the menu on Nowruz?

We always have reshteh-polo (noodle rice) the night before Nowruz. On Nowruz itself, sabzi-polo ba mahi (herbed rice with fish) is the one thing that’s never missing—definitely the key dish. Something I’m adding myself this year (it’s not even traditional—I just haven’t had it in years and have been craving it) is a spread of Persian shirini like napoleon, rolette and noon-khamei (cream puffs.) My actual favourite ever. 

Lilian Afshar, designer and founder of L’Afshar

What does Nowruz mean to you?

Nowruz is really important to me, growing up outside of Iran it has always been the one tradition that made me feel very connected to my culture. I love the meaning behind Nowruz and each piece of the haftseen has such a heartfelt meaning. It’s a celebration of birth, Nowruz literally means “New Day”.

How do you usually celebrate it?

On the day, we celebrate by gathering together as a family and for lunch we have Sabzi polo mahi, which is a rice dish with herbs with white fish. If I’m in Iran or the UK where most of my family live we visit each other’s houses after lunch.

Does your Haftseen have a theme?

I don’t like a very polished Haftseen, I love adding wildflowers to the mix and one book we as a family put is a book of Hafez’s poems.

Where is it in your home?

It changes each year, not one particular spot. Whatever feels right at the time.

Do you have any particular ritual for when you set it up?

I usually set it up with my mum whilst playing some old Iranian music, Googoosh and Hayedeh are my favorites, the whole process and ritual makes me so happy. The older I’m getting the more excited I get as it really allows me to connect with my culture.

Have any of the items on your Haftseen table been in your family for a long time or does it have a special meaning?

One of the elements of Haftseen is the Sekkeh (gold coin) that represents the symbol of wealth and prosperity. We use an old gold coin we have of the Shah and his father Reza Shah. This is a piece we add in every year, but the rest of the elements I like to change up every year.

How will you celebrate Nowruz this year?

With my husband, mother and our dogs and maybe a zoom gathering with our family members that are abroad.

Maryam Hosseini, Head of Strategy at Miilkiina 

What does Nowruz mean to you?

Nowruz has always been a really special time of year for me- a chance to reconnect with my family, my culture, and really just appreciate life and being alive. It is my absolute favorite time of year, and another opportunity to learn about who I am and where I come from. I love that it is a bit further away from January 1st, it makes me feel like I have a bit of a second chance or headstart with preparing and setting intentions for what’s ahead. It also just happens to be usually 1-2 days right before my birthday so I feel so much extra love and joy sharing the holiday and the opportunity to not only celebrate, but reflect and be present with those closest to me as part of my birthday festivities.

How do you usually celebrate it?

Growing up in Kentucky in an extremely small Persian community (long story), I would be my mother’s assistant in all Nowruz festivities, from making the rounds with friends and family in the states and Iran on phone calls, sprouting and growing our sabzeh, painting & decorating eggs, preparing the stuffing for our Mahi dinner, and gathering all of the items around our home for the sofreh. We’d also usually make our way in the evening to a close friends home, host our own mehmooni, or join the rest of the small Persian community at the local Nowruz party that served the tri-state area. Now on my own, I love to celebrate with my Persian friends and family that are often visiting me in Miami by hosting a small get together and over-feeding everyone. Sometimes we’ll even pile in a car and drive north about 45 minutes to our favorite Persian restaurant after enjoying my Haftseen together.  My mom’s side of the family is incredibly superstitious so I can’t even consider starting the new year now without a trip to purchase new panties (new is the theme remember! I have no idea where exactly this tradition came from) and cleaning every single inch and corner of my apartment as a part of my prep and set up.

Does your Haftseen have a theme?

I love a modern clean approach and emphasising the floral parts of my Haftseen but I truly appreciate the large, elaborate yet welcoming Haftseens that are often decorated with red accents that my mom and aunties set.

Where is it in your home?

At my parent’s home the Haftseen is set in our dining room across the entire dining room table- pretty elaborate. That table is off limits for use for a whole three weeks.  I prefer a smaller set up on my bar countertop at my apartment which is close to my entryway. I love to see it from multiple angles, I adore seeing the sun shine through my fish’s water in the mornings and like the idea of still being able to use my dining table. Also it needs to be a bit higher up because my cat has a tendency to mess with the fish when he realizes they are there lol.

Do you have any particular ritual for when you set it up?

I’m usually a last minute perfectionist- so while not a ritual per say but I guess my ‘ritual’ is doing the most at the last minute and marveling at my own ability to bring it all together without much prep like a true Persian! I also love to partake in Charshambehsoori with best friend Ahmed. Nothing like jumping over a small trashcan fire in a Miami high-rise balcony.

Have any of the items on your Haftseen table been in your family for a long time or does it have a special meaning?

My parents have a pair of candlesticks, mirror, and Quran on their Haftseen table that were also on the sofreh from their wedding in 1978 in Tehran. My mom carried all three through multiple planes, trains and automobiles when they immigrated during the Revolution and only had one chip on the candle holder. I also love to place a beautiful miniature painting that is framed in a Khatam (micro mosaic) frame that I took with me when I left my parents home for college and during my last visit in 2019, I purchased a beautiful silk place setting with my auntie when we were visiting Esfahaan for my Haftseen sofrehs. But I must say that my favorite item is the Sabzeh. There is something so rewarding and special about sprouting your own lentils, watching them grow lusciously and then giving them back to the earth on Sizdehbedar, the last day of the holiday. I always attempt to do it and somehow along the way don’t make it- but this year I had some help with my extended Persian family and was able to do it!

How will you celebrate Nowruz this year?

This year I will celebrate with my chosen family in Miami and maybe some family zoom action to compare Sofreh’s, marvel at my mom and auntie’s Sabzeh towers. And of course, new this year is the chance to celebrate with all of you in my Miilkiina community.

Roya Shariat, Co-Founder of Iranian-American cooking page Maman and Me

What does Nowruz mean to you?

For me, Nowruz is a celebration of life. I have always loved that the new year is the start of spring, a moment in time that feels like the triumph of light over darkness. It’s a beautiful holiday that celebrates rebirth, regeneration, and growth. 

It also means quality time reconnecting with loved ones over delicious meals and celebrations, which are deeply important to me. Those delicious meals with family are the inspiration of my cooking project with my Maman (and future cookbook!), Maman and Me: I wanted to immortalize her delicious cooking, her ability to turn every meal into a special occasion, and to share some of that goodness with the world. This time last year, TikToks of her cooking became an internet sensation — I’m even more excited to document her Nowruz meals now that we have an audience of people who want to see them and learn about our traditions. 

Do you have any particular Nowruz traditions?

The Tuesday before Nowruz, we celebrate Chaharshanbe Suri, an occasion that is rooted in ancient Zoroastrian rituals. We jump over fires to cleanse ourselves of any negative energy or sickness and in turn, get light, warmth, and positive energy (which feels particularly timely now!). We typically celebrate in a park with hundreds of other people, but now continue to find ways to celebrate at home. Last year, I challenged friends to jump over their candles at home in an effort to spread this cleansing ritual further — friends from Brooklyn to LA to London to Ramallah joined in. There’s something about jumping over fire that feels extremely cathartic — the warmth and rush I get from it is a confidence booster that prepares me to celebrate Nowruz. 

One other favorite tradition is baking Nowruz cookies with my maman. She brings out a 50+ year old cookbook by Roza Montazemi with her own recipes and handwritten notes in the margins, and her mixer. We sit in the kitchen for hours, sifting flour, separating eggs, weighing ingredients, lining baking sheets with parchment and churning at least four varieties of cookies out with special molds + cookie cutters from Iran. The smell of rosewater fills the house and we’re left with incredible cookies to munch on and share with all of our loved ones for weeks. 

Does your Haftseen have a theme?

My Haftseen theme has always been minimalist: I’ll gather a few elements of the Haftseen in my Brooklyn apartment for a makeshift spread. My Maman, on the other hand, is a Haftseen maximalist. Every year, she has a new theme — this year’s motif is ‘contemporary glass,’ (her words, not mine) with all of our traditional items placed in beautiful, harmonious glass containers. Every year has its own accent color, and this year’s is blue. 

Where is it in your home?

My Haftseens end up on my coffee table or bookshelf, while my mamans’ intricate spreads are always the first thing you see when you enter the house, placed centrally so you can see it no matter where you are in the home.

Do you set it up with friends or family?

My maman is the Creative Director of Haftseens — she has the vision, she knows exactly what she wants, and she’ll work hard to make that vision a reality. I’ll play a supporting role. I’m really just there to help her or give feedback if she asks for it! She’s the Haftseen Queen. 

Have any of the items on your Haftseen table been in your family for a long time or does it have a special meaning?

The Quran on our Haftseen has been passed down throughout my family, and has been on our Haft-seens since my family came to the states over 30 years ago. The Quran is wrapped in special cloth casing for safekeeping and it’s one we use for other family rituals— it’s the same Quran we walk under before any of us travel.

We’ve also had this book of Hafez’s poetry on our haftseens for the past decade, which is really special. It’s a handwritten manuscript that is 330 years old, from the court of the Moghul Emperor Muhammad Shah, with a dedication to him on the last page. My Baba came across it at an auction and is a massive poetry fan, so the book is extremely precious to him!

What is one dish that is never missing from the menu on Nowruz?

It’s so hard to name just one dish when the Nowruz dinner is truly a multi-dish experience… but I’ll say Kuku Sabzi is a must. Kuku sabzi is a frittata full of fresh green herbs, eating it at Nowruz  symbolizes renewal and rebirth. It’s easy to make, extremely flavorful, and a versatile + forgiving recipe. We’ve made it in muffin tins in the past so you can have a small personal serving and take it on the go. It’s something I crave often and is the perfect complement to the fish and sabzi polo we typically eat around the holiday.

What does Nowruz mean to you?

For me, Nowruz is a celebration of life. I have always loved that the new year is the start of spring, a moment in time that feels like the triumph of light over darkness. It’s a beautiful holiday that celebrates rebirth, regeneration, and growth. 

Do you have any particular Nowruz traditions?

One major tradition that is tedious but not practiced enough is khooneh takooni (shaking the house / spring cleaning.) So much of Nowruz is steeped in washing away the old and preparing for the new so cleaning the house is especially important this time of the year. There is nothing more important than a clean and welcoming home in my eyes.  

 

Outside of cleaning in preparation for Nowruz my immediate family who all live in Maryland get together, but with  COVID, my husband and I were alone last Nowruz as we will be again this year. Last year was our first Nowruz away from my family so we really improvised but in retrospect, we also started our own little tradition. We ate a lovely brunch with nimroo (fried egg), kaku sabzi (herb frittata), sabzi (fresh herbs), noon barbari (Persian bread), jams, feta, and chai with nabat (rock candy.) Most of the foods I listed hold significance around Nowruz so I’ll probably make a similar spread this year for us. We also set some time to pray together to bring in the New Year. The remarkable thing about Nowruz for our family is that it also is the Baha’i New Year, so not only does this holiday mean a lot to me on a cultural basis it also holds a special place in regards to my religious beliefs. 

Does your Haftseen have a theme?

My Haftseen is evolving, so it never looks the same as previous years. This year I chose to incorporate handmade ceramics that I began to collect this past year by excellent artists, including Deba K and Azin Mafi

Where is it in your home?

I live in New York, so space is always a challenge for just about everything. I typically have the Haftseen on our dining table, or a side table in the living room. 

Do you set it up with friends or family?

I set up on my own because I’m a controlling Capricorn who likes things done in a certain way lol. 

Have any of the items on your Haftseen table been in your family for a long time or does it have a special meaning?

My dad gave me a few coins and bills from Iran that he brought with him when my family fled Iran in the 80s.  They are what I use every year for sekkeh (coins), which represents wealth and prosperity.  I am not attached to the idea of wealth and prosperity as much as I am attached to the idea of the young man who risked everything to leave his homeland to protect his family. In a weird way, those coins stamp a time that I’ll never know but a time that has had lasting effects on me and my family.

What is one dish that is never missing from the menu on Nowruz?

Sabzi polo (dill rice) ba mahi (mahi means fish, but in particular, it’s mean to be white fish) is always on the menu for Nowruz. It’s as essential as turkey on Thanksgiving.