30 Dec Celebrating the New Year from Asia to America and Winter into Spring
My five friends and I walked to the edge of the black stone jetty. As we stood along southern New Jersey’s coast, waves from the Atlantic surged and shot up around us. I looked just beyond the rocks, where I would normally paddle out on my surfboard. That day, we would use the same current for another ancient ritual from across the world.
“With these sprouts,” we said, more or less in unison, holding bouquets of spring greens over the water, “take away all the bad luck from the old year, and bring us only good luck for the new year.”
We flung the lentil sprouts into the waves, and watched their lanky stems float to the rocks, where the current carried them out to sea. We danced in circles and hugged and wished each other a happy New Year before settling into a beach picnic. With sandwiches, fruit, home baked cookies, and a thermos of fragrant black tea, we soaked in friendship, fresh air, and sunshine.
We were celebrating the dawn of spring through a nature-based festival rooted in the traditions of farmers, herders, and nomads. This New Year ritual is called Nowruz, meaning new day in Persian. Though the celebration culminates at the spring equinox in March, it lasts for weeks and dates back millennia: Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pagans all across Southwest and Central Asia have celebrated the month-long festival for more than three thousand years.
It is a celebration I have carried on from my own ancestors in the Caucasus and Iran to my birthplace in Colorado and also to New Jersey, Spain and France. But the fullest and truest celebrations still take place in Iran and beyond, into Anatolia, the Levant, Russia, Central Asia, and even parts of South Asia.
The casting of sprouts into running water is Nowruz’s final act. And while the ceremonies end with water, they nearly always begin with fire.
The tradition of jumping over bonfires takes place the Wednesday night before the equinox. It comes after weeks of cleaning homes and discarding broken items: The ritual marks a symbolic burning off of last year’s bad luck, and a cleansing transition to the new.
“Give me your vibrant color, and take away my pale color from winter,” we say as we jump over the flames.
Though building a fire in our backyard in Colorado (or New Jersey) was (and is) banned, I still light a candle on this night and in a Jack-jumps-over-the-candlestick manner carry out the ritual.
A few days later, and a few hours before the equinox, we set the ritual table, lighting candles that represent light and the children in the family. Around them we array plates of seven foods symbolic of health, abundance, beauty and joy, all that begin with the sound “s”: sabzeh (green sprouts of wheat or lentils); seer (garlic); senjed (dried fruit of the lotus tree); serkeh (vinegar); somaq (sumac berries); seeb (apple); and samanu (creamy wheat pudding). There’s a bowl of water with an orange floating in it, and sometimes another bowl of water with a goldfish. I also set pastries for sweetness, coins for wealth, and a mirror with an egg on it for creation and fertility.
The fresh green stalks of sabzeh sprouts glimmer beside the candles with the signs of new life, and the hyacinths and narcissus smell of a Persian garden. Beside a book of the poems of Hafez — Iran’s celebrated 14th century mystical poet — I add the collected poetry of 13th century Persian mystic, Rumi. Both of their poems, like Nowruz, embrace people from all walks of life.
Then the equinox arrives: The sun passes the equator and marks day as equal with night, and everyone gathers around the table, holding hopes of well-being for all. We watch the bowl of water with the orange intently, and the mirror with the egg. In ancient Persian mythology, the earth is held on the horns of a great cosmic bull and at the exact second of the spring equinox, he shifts the earth from one horn to the other to hold it there for the coming year. The motion creates a slight ripple across the water or a jiggle in the egg.
When the moment passes, the eldest at the table take the lead in wishing everyone good health, prosperity and joy, and also give out gifts, usually gold coins or crisp bills of cash to the younger members of the family. We then enjoy cups of freshly brewed tea and the plates of sweets, and read poetry to receive fortune and focus for the new year.
One of the most beautiful visions of Nowruz, and among the best ancient sources of information about it, comes from the stone engraved reliefs at Persepolis in today’s south central Iran. The engravings depict people from all across the Achaemenid Empire arriving in procession to give gifts to the Persian king during the 6th century BCE. Among them are Assyrians with rams, Armenians with horses, Lydians with jugs filled with gold, and a Nubian carrying an elephant tusk. It is an eternal spring celebration, one that speaks of rebirth and bounty. But with the variation of people and cultures—seen through differences in dress, ornament, symbols, hairstyles and gifts—the procession is also a celebration of tolerance, peace, and diversity.
After a three-week ritual from fire to water, I looked around at my friends gathered on the beach on the last day of Nowruz. Feeling the sun on my skin and the promise of spring, I felt folded once again into the more natural cycles of life. A big part of Nowruz’s magic is that it gives me a chance once a year to return to an ancient state of natural balance. Celebrating near the ocean, the waves’ ebb and flow reinforcing this pull into more natural cycles, I know that the next time I paddle into the lineup, I’ll be following those spring offerings in a current of renewed well-being and hope.
Inspired to visit the homelands of Nowruz? Try these featured adventures from Adventure Collection member GeoEx:
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