Nowruz is the name of the Iranian/Persian New Year. It marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar.
In ancient Persia every day of the month had a special name, for example: the 16th day of each month was called Mehr. Curiously, some of those names were identical to the names of the months, for example: the 7th month of the year was also called Mehr. In the Persian calendar whenever the name of the current day was the same as the current month, that day was considered a festival and people celebrated it. Following our example: the Mehr day of the Mehr month (16th day of the 7th month) was a festival called Mehregan, likewise there were 11 other festivals within a year, each with a special Khan (table) related to it.
Haft-seen is the name of the special table of Nowruz, the Festival of new year and the beginning of spring. This table is made up of seven items that start with the letter “S”, in fact haft-seen literally means “seven S letters”!
It is believed that the table was originally called Haft-sheen (seven Sh letters) and that people used to put seven things on the table that start with the letter Sh: Sham’ (candle), Shahd (honey), Shirini (sweets), Sharab (wine)… After the Islamic conquest of Persia Sharab (wine) was considered Haram or sinful, and therefore it was replaced with Serkeh (vinegar), subsequently the rest of the table items were replaced with ones starting with the letter S.
Every item that is placed on the nowadays Haft-seen table symbolizes something positive for the coming year:
- Sumac (crushed spice of berries): For the sunrise and the spice of life
- Senjed (sweet dry fruit of the lotus tree): For love and affection
- Serkeh (vinegar): For patience and age
- Seeb (apples): For health and beauty
- Sir (garlic): For good health
- Samanu (wheat pudding): For fertility and the sweetness of life
- Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass): For rebirth and renewal of nature
Apart from these seven items, there are other things placed on the table that depend on the family traditions. For example: muslims place their Qur’an, Zoroastrians place their holy book Avesta, and some families place the Divan-e Hafez, the book of the famous Persian poet, or Shahnameh, the long Persian epic poem.
Other items that many people place on their tables include an orange floating in a bowl of water, which is a sign of earth rotating around itself, a mirror that symbolizes sky and self reflection of the creation, colored eggs symbolizing creation and fertility, coins symbolizing wealth and prosperity and a fish bowl with a real goldfish inside: goldfish is the sign of the last month of Persian calendar, and the turning of the goldfish inside the bowl is a sign of turning of the year and a new beginning.
The table is usually set some hours before the beginning of the new year, then the family members spend the last moments of the ending year siting around and reading their holy book or poems of Hafez and Ferdousi.