Sabzeh. Photo by Sam Janavrouh.

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Norooz: Springing into the New Year

When I think of New Year’s, I don’t think of Times Square or people with glittery glasses in the shape of the year. I don’t think of flutes of champagne or groups of strangers loudly counting down from 10.

I think of the smell of hyacinth blooming.

For me, the new year starts in March with an empty yogurt container.

As a child, I have fond memories of my mom filling two large containers with water and calling us all around the kitchen counter. We’d take turns grabbing handfuls of dried lentils and unpelted wheat and letting them loose into the water as we made our neyat for the year. This was serious wish-making; most kids only got wishes for their birthday candles once a year, but here I was being given a chance to make multiple wishes. (Which means there were more than enough wishes for my family’s well-being, world peace, and whatever I wanted for myself.) When the seeds were ultimately spread across a platter and placed in a sunny spot to sprout, I’d watch them anxiously, hoping the emerging green blades would pull our cast wishes into existence.

As an adult, I can’t help but compare my sabzeh every year to the ones I watched grow under my mother’s care. Mine never seems as tall, or as full, or as green. It doesn’t matter that we both start the process at the same time, our large, empty yogurt containers in hand, from our own homes. Somehow my mom’s are always better than mine.

Maybe it’s the curse of being part of a diaspora, this fear of not being able to do what should be second nature.

But the fear is not enough to keep me from trying every year. Because the truth is even if my American calendar recognizes January 1 as the new year, my Iranian heart will continue to celebrate the start of the year in the middle of March—on the first day of spring.

Nowruz, Norouz, or Norooz—no matter how you spell it—literally means “new day.” With rituals stemming from Zoroastrianism, it is a holiday celebrated across different countries, by people of different ethnicities and religions. And there’s something poetic about a holiday that doesn’t belong to just one people.

And while it can be inconvenient when the spring equinox falls in the middle of the night (as it did this past March), I don’t mind being at the mercy of nature. Rather than pretending newness awaits in the dead of winter, I find comfort in following her lead as she turns the page from winter to spring.

Though to be honest, I decided to follow her lead this year from the comfort of my own bed, deciding she would understand my decision to catch up with her transition after a full night of sleep, especially during a pandemic.

Even if Norooz officially happens at a specific time on a specific day, it is a month-long affair that goes beyond sprouting seeds. Like most important life transitions, there is required preparation. The Tuesday night before Norooz, Chahar Shanbeh Soori, we engage in yet another important tradition. We gather in groups to jump over bonfires, chanting and laughing as the flames flicker beneath our feet. The fire is meant to take the “yellowing” of our old year, while graciously giving us her “redness” in exchange. It is a ceremony to ready ourselves for the changes that await us in the new year.

My parents tell stories of the giant bonfires in Iran—ones spanning several feet, ones so large it feels like magic when people leap across unscathed. And while there are places in the Bay Area where such bonfires are organized, they weren’t that close to where we lived growing up. It wasn’t until I was a student at Cal that I experienced the thrill of jumping over an actual bonfire. As Iranian music played in the background, I linked arms with friends and leapt across. That night, I went to bed with my hair smelling like barbeque, and I almost felt like I could have been in my parents’ stories. It may not be the same as going back to the country of my birth, but there is comfort in hearing the echo of home so many miles away.

Perhaps one day my twins will get to experience this feeling for themselves, or maybe as diaspora-once-removed they won’t feel the ache of leaving a country that still pulses under their skin. They will want to jump over bonfires because they seem dangerous and exciting, not because they connect them back to another place.

But in the meantime, my children jump fire the way I usually did as a child for Chahar Shanbe Soori—over a series of candles lined up across the kitchen floor. Not as exhilarating as a bonfire fed by fuel, but an option that at least won’t result in neighbors calling the fire department when a backyard bonfire goes bad.

To be part of the diaspora means making these adjustments to traditions without losing their purpose. Even if we are living in a country that doesn’t make space for our holiday the way it would in our homelands, we find a way to make space for it in our own lives, in our own ways.

No matter what personal touches we put on the holiday, at the end of the day, it is a tribute to life itself, as can be seen in the haft-seen (7 Ss) table proudly displayed in any Iranian’s house during Norooz. The table consists of symbolic items that begin with the Persian letter “س”—items like seer (garlic) to symbolize good health and senjed (dried fruit from lotus tree) to symbolize love. And our sabzeh—the manifestation of our wishes—is said to represent rebirth.

Haft-seen table. Photo by author.

Haft-seen table. Photo by author.

Putting together the haft-seen table is like meditation for me. There is something calming about taking out the small, shallow saucers and arranging them on the table like art, before filling them with their colorful contents. My own haft-seen table may not be as fancy as those of my friends and relatives—there aren’t multiple pots of colorful hyacinth or large platters of Iranian cookies—but it feels like me. There is a book of poetry and floating glass fish I bought one year from Etsy, because I refused to buy goldfish only to watch them die soon after. There are hard-boiled eggs colored by my kids and a small plate of treats—homemade raisin butter cookies set alongside my favorite store-bought nokhodchee, delicate chickpea cookies that crumble in the most delicious of ways.

Perhaps most important, the haft-seen is something I put together with my twins. Just as my mother gathered us around to prepare for the new year, now I gather my own children, going through the checklist of our items to make sure everything is there, moving things around until the table looks how we want it to.

And I hope my children feel the same excitement I do when we have readied ourselves for spring’s arrival. I hope years from now, they don’t see this as a holiday that their mother celebrated.

Even if they have never visited Iran. Even if they don’t remember all the Farsi words for each of the objects on the haft-seen.

I hope it becomes as stitched into their DNA as it is in mine.

Because I can’t help but fill with hope during a season that is blooming with it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate how spiritual Norooz is as a holiday—how it embodies the cyclical nature of seasons and centers a cycle of letting go and putting forth. I’ve come to see Norooz as a reminder to embrace change and learn to let go, even if I’m not always sure what the future holds. And perhaps this is most evident in how Norooz ends.

On the thirteenth day, we head outside for Sizdah Bedar. We sit on blankets with loved ones, ladling ash-e reshteh in bowls and pouring tea from thermos bottles from the ’80s, the smell of cardamom heavy in the air. You may be wondering what happens to that sabzeh we grew. (Maybe it’s because we’re starting the sprouting process too early in my house, but at this point, it’s not smelling as fresh anymore.) We bring it with us on our picnic and we throw the sabzeh into a stream, setting our wishes off and trusting in Nature to lead them where they need to go.

And call me sentimental, but I like the feeling of making wishes for the future, knowing not everything is in our control. I mean, I wouldn’t mind every one of my wishes coming true, but there is less pressure knowing that not everything is in your own hands. You can’t always steer your wishes in the directions you want them to go. Sometimes they pause at the rocks of life, and you have to wait for them to be nudged forward. Sometimes there’s not enough movement, and they sit stagnant, waiting for life to rain down and move them along.

Maybe it’s because I was a child of the revolution that I know our futures don’t always end up how we expect them to. My parents never thought they’d raise a family outside their homeland. But here we still are, over four decades later, now raising our own families.

Maybe this is why Norooz has served even more of an important reminder to me during this pandemic.

Last March, as everything was being shut down for the first time, none of us knew we would be in this predicament for over a year. I was certain I’d be back to teaching my high school students in person within a few weeks. I took for granted that I would be hanging out with friends soon enough.

But if I was in denial about reality, my sabzeh was not.

By the time Norooz rolled around, I felt as depressed as my sabzeh looked—we were both barely sprouting. There would be no gathering with my extended family. No sitting around talking with my cousins, drinking tea and catching up, as our parents drank their own tea in the other room. No kissing each other on the cheek and popping sweets in our mouths when the new year finally arrived.

Maybe it was coincidental that so many of my fellow Iranians posted pictures of similar sad-looking sabzeh on their social media accounts. Or maybe, it was Mother Nature’s way of grieving with us, of showing us that sometimes our wishes don’t come into existence. Sometimes no matter how hard we wish for life to return to how it was, it can’t.

And yet, we must still continue forward.

Unable to sit around the table with my parents and siblings for Norooz, I Zoomed with them.

Not having the ingredients to make ash-e reshteh or polo sabzi mahi myself, I chopped the herbs I had in the fridge, mixed them with eggs, and made a kookoo sabzi.

It wasn’t my mother’s cooking, but it was good enough.

And if there is anything I’ve learned this past year, it’s that sometimes good enough is good enough. It’s not about how high your sabzeh has grown, or how elaborate your haft-seen is. At the end of the day, Norooz is about honoring time, not objects.

It’s about honoring the passage of one season into the next. It’s about pausing our daily life to spend time with those we love—whether it’s around a crowded table or socially distanced to keep them safe.

I may not have been old enough when I left Iran as a child to remember what Norooz is like there, but every year, I am thankful that my parents didn’t trade this holiday for the glittery glasses of the American new year.

I am thankful for the reminder to slow down long enough to smell the hyacinths.