Happy Norouz

The Persian’s Celebration of Renewal: Spring Cleaning Meets Christmas

The feast for the Persian New Year of Norouz was ready: Wheat symbolizing rebirth, sweet pudding symbolizing prosperity, dried fruit of the oleander tree symbolizing love, garlic symbolizing medicine, apples symbolizing beauty and health, sumac berries symbolizing sunrise and vinegar symbolizing age and patience.

This is the ceremonial table of Haft sin, the seven creations and the holy immortals that protect them, as it has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years. It may be much older though, dating possibly from as long ago as 15,000 years, since the time of the ancient Persian King Jamshid before the last ice age, who is thought to have begun the tradition to celebrate the coming of spring and the rebirth of abundance.

Today, the table is usually laid beside the flag of modern Iran, as it was for this feast in Thomas K. Lang Gallery at Webster University on March 28, part of a series of celebrations of the New Year from the traditions of students at the university

“With more of these events Webster could become a school where people live together instead of next to each other,” said Bond Benton, who teaches culture and communication at Webster.  Students from the many countries too often stay in their own groups, not interacting across cultural lines. But every one loves a party, and students rarely turn down a free meal.

“The festivals are at least a chance to break bread together and stimulate people’s curiosity,” said journalism professor Dardis McNamee. “That’s a good place to start.” Iranians celebrate Norouz late in March basing their New Year on the movement of the sun. At their reckoning, it is the year of 1386, the count beginning with the founding of Islam in 650 AD.

Norouz is celebrated in almost all the countries that were the territories of the Great Persian Empire. It usually occurs on the day of the Vernal Equinox around March 21, when the sun is directly over the equator and day and night are of equal length.

The ritual of renewal is carried out in several ways, according to Mohammad Shamszadek, one of the organizers of the event. A month before Norouz, everyone purchases new clothes for the New Year, and a week before, they clean their house.

Norouz lasts for 13 days and is celebrated with family visits the exchanging of gifts, particularly for the children. Traditionally, Norouz had women dressing up in colored satin outfits but few dress up like that anymore. They prefer buying new clothes than wearing old ones.

For the Webster celebration, visitors began to arrive by about 14:00 for a video of Iran’s lush mountain hillsides and desert areas in the north, its modern cities and mythic minarets, terraced clay and terracotta villages beside meadows full of sheep.

Then Bert Fragner, research director of Iranian Studies at Institute of Iranian Studies and guest professor at the University of Vienna spoke about the Persian language, called Farsi, which is one of the oldest in the world, surviving from its ancient origins through centuries of evolving culture to the life of modern Iran.

The proceedings closed with a performance on the Sitar by Ardavan Taheri, a traditional musician well-known among Iranians in Vienna, whose black hair and scholarly glasses, dress shirt, jeans and orange flight jacket made him hard to place in time or milieu. But his playing on the plucked stringed Sitar was transcendent, as he closed his eyes, swaying slightly, lost in the music.

When the program was over, people were free to wander around the gallery, mounted with images and panels on Iranian art, culture and history. The books impressed many.

”I couldn’t tear myself away from the art books” said Josipa Saric, a Webster student fascinated by Persian art. She was also impressed by a list of Iranians leading major international companies,  like Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and Omid Kordestani, Google’s Senior Vice President of Global Sales and Business Development. Others were more impressed with the traditional Iranian drinks, made of syrups and distillations of mint, Lavender, Withe Willow, Ziziphora, Cinnamon-Ginger and Sour-Orange flower.

“The sample drinks were fascinating, I would never in my life get to taste fermented orange – which was delicious – if it hadn’t been for this event.” said Benton.

They also served traditional foods – Dolme, made of rice and vegetables rapped in wine leaves, Ash Reshte, a kind of soup, Sholeh Zard and Sheer Berenj, traditional dishes and deserts for Norouz.  Altogether, it had been a lot of work. Organizers Shamszadek and Hossein Nabavi had spent some 10 days gathering all the bits and pieces together, with objects and  artifacts from Iranian Culture Institute in Vienna and support from the Student Council. They had been there since 8 am in the morning to set it up.  The Council was delighted with the result.

“The event was one of the best organised events on the campus this year,” said student council president Dragan Sormaz. “The Iranian Community has opened the door for other communities.” The Iranian group, that included several council members hopes to repeat the event annually.

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