Iran: Culture, Traditions, and Celebrations
Updated: 5 days ago
Iran, formerly known as Persia, is one of the oldest nations in the world, and its history dates to tens of thousands of years. It is one of the cradles of civilizations, with a rich culture stemming from the heart of the Persian empire. Similarly, traditions and celebrations dating from ages ago have been passed down generations and made their way to the modern lives of Iranians. All these celebrations have been brought to the GU-Q campus by the Iranian Society and we hope that everyone will champion the opportunity to pass by and celebrate our culture and traditions with us.
There are several cultural festivals with Zoroastrian roots that are still widely celebrated today by Iranians, but there are four significant events that any Iranian around the world celebrates no matter their background: Nowruz, Sizdeh Bedar, Yalda, and Chahrshanbe Soori. It is important to mention that Iranians follow the solar calendar – meaning their dates, months, and even year are different. To elaborate, the new year in Iran, Nowruz, begins on March 21 or March 22 of every year, however, the timing varies and is quite specific because it depends on the spring equinox.
Nowruz means “new day” and it’s the first day of the Iranian new year marked by the night of the sun’s birth because the days gradually grow longer, and the nights fall shorter. The celebration period lasts for up to thirteen days. The first thing to do before the new year is khoone takoni which literally translates to “shaking the house” but can be understood as intense house cleaning. On the day of Nowruz, families, and friends gather to eat herbed rice served with fish, sabzi polo ba mahi. This dish is important as it shows the freshness of the food that was caught on the first day of spring. People also gather around to read poetry and perform fal giri which is fortune telling where they read passages from the book of Hafez and see what the year holds for them. An important fictional character in Nowruz is Haji Firouz who is a serf that wears red clothes, a felt hat, and has a soot-covered face. He dances throughout the streets, sings, and plays the tambourine while announcing that Nowruz is nearby.
The center of Nowruz is preparing the “haft-sin” (seven s - س) table, the 15th letter in the Farsi alphabet. The main seven item symbolizes something which is why they are put on the table: sprouts (sabzeh) - rebirth & growth, pudding (samanu) - power & strength, oleaster (senjed) - love, vinegar (serkeh) - patience, apple (seeb) beauty, garlic (seer) - health & medicine, and sumac - sunrise.
There are other symbolic items included on the table: hyacinth (sonbol) - spring’s arrival, coin (sekkeh) - wealth & prosperity, clock (saat) - time, colored eggs (tokhme morg rangi) - fertility, mirror (ayina) - self-reflection, candle (shaam) - enlightenment, goldfish (maahi ye qirmiz) - progress, and a divan/book (ketab) - wisdom.
Sizdeh Bedar translates to “getting rid of the 13” and is celebrated on the 13th day of the Iranian year, April 1 or April 2, and signifies the end of the Nowruz celebrations. After 12 days of celebrating at one another’s homes to appreciate the haftsin tables, the 13th day is spent outdoors in nature where the goldfish from the haftsin table are returned to the rivers and the sabzeh is thrown in any form of moving water to go back to nature. Touching someone else’s sprouts is bad luck, and the custom is for single people to tie a knot on the stems of the greens before tossing them into the water as a form of wishing to find a partner. The reason why it is celebrated on the 13th day is that the first 12 days of Nowruz each represent one month of the year, and 13 is believed to be an ominous number hence the name and outdoor location. Additionally, there is the tradition of pranking one another called “lie of the 13”, dorugha sizdah. The foods consumed are typically picnicked food and grilled kebabs outdoors but an important drink that everyone consumes is sekanjabin, made with vinegar, honey, mint and lettuce as a form of a promise to stay healthy during the new year.
Yalda means “birth or light” and is a winter solstice festival celebrated on the night of December 20 or December 21 which is the last day of the ninth month in the solar calendar and the first day of the tenth month. It is called the longest and darkest night of the year which marks the night opening the 40-day period of the three-month winter before Nowruz. Shabe Chelleh is another name for the festival, meaning the 40th night. In the solar calendar, there are three 40-day periods, one in summer and two in winter, and the two winter periods are called the great chelleh period with Yalda Night opening the big chelleh period. Lights and candles are used throughout the long night while family and friends gather to eat, drink, and read poetry, specifically the Shahnameh, from dusk till dawn. The red color is especially significant on Yalda because it symbolizes the crimson hues of dawn and the glow of life. Similar to Nowruz, there is a Yalda table decorated with red foods and it is customary to consume 40 forms of edibles throughout the night, especially red fruits such as pomegranates and watermelons; beets, red tea, wine, and nuts are also quite common. Poetry is divined throughout until the sunrise because historically people tended to believe that the long night was dark and full of terrors, so it was a form of staying together and keeping occupied until morning.
The final celebration of the solar year known as the Scarlet Wednesday is celebrated on the eve of the last Wednesday of the year and is the first festivity of the Nowruz celebrations. The center of the festival is jumping over a fire while chanting “sorkhi ye to az man, zardi ye man az to” which means “let your redness be mine, and my paleness yours” and is seen as a purification practice before the new year. Back then, it was seen as “day of the dead” where people believed spirits walk among them. During the Qajar period, Iranians would seek the intercession of the Pearl Cannon during Chahrshanbe Soori. There are a lot of traditions that are celebrated on this night, such as qashoq zani where people would wear disguises and go door to door hitting spoons against plates and bowls in exchange for snacks. Another tradition, kuza sekani is when pots are smashed after a person jumps over the fire to remove misfortunes. Families would put coins, charcoal, and salt into the pot and stir it around a person’s head to transfer the misfortune from them before throwing it off from the top of the roof. Fortune telling is also common where people would place a personal item and slips of paper with auguries into a jug, a child would then be asked to remove an item followed by the most knowledgeable person being asked to remove a piece of paper, and a person’s fate is revealed. There is also the custom of eating ajeel chaharshanbe soori, nuts, sweets, and raisins, to make a person’s wishes come true. Moreover, men would often drop a basket tied to a rope through the chimney or any other opening through a girl’s house, and if the gift in the basket is received by the family of the girl and an item is returned, it potentially indicates that their courtship is accepted. Lastly, it is important to burn rue, esfand, to ward off evil eyes and demons. It is also the time when families gather together to plant and grow the sabze for Nowruz, cook the samanu which takes 2 days and prepare the Nowruz snacks such as deep-fried rice known as berenjak.
These four celebrations are the core of holding the Iranian culture together. They are essential in keeping the people in touch with their Persian roots, which is why every year, Persians around the world gather to celebrate these historical traditions to keep them grounded in their heritage and culture, despite where they are or what beliefs they might practice.