The following conversation is transcribed from a conversation between me (HS) and my co-worker/informant (MK).
HS: So can you tell me about the Persian New Year?
MK: Of course! So we celebrate the beginning our our spring as the beginning of our new year. We call it Persian New Year or “Nowruz,” which translates to “New day.” The celebrations usually happen between March 19th and March 23rd. There’s a specific day, time and second that we go into our new year, much like the American New Year. So this year, for us, it was March 20th at 7:40AM PST. It sounds like a weird time but it’s because we’re here in California. Iran is almost 12 hours ahead of us and so the that time makes a lot more sense there. So anyways, a week before the new year, we get new, fresh bills as gifts and we set a table with seven items that start with an “s.” The item spellings are from Farsi and not English so they’re not what you would expect, like apples and garlic, for example.
HS: Do these items have any sort of deeper meaning?
MK: Oh yes. So first of all, each item starts with the Persian letter, “seen,” which again, is like the English letter, “s.” Each item corresponds to the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. The Haft-Seen table and the items on it are kind of a representation of nature.
My informant is a coworker from my job. She has the same role as me and so we spend a lot of time talking in-between customers. She immigrated to the United States from Tehran, the capital of Iran, when she was 16 years old and has a lot of family here that she enjoys continuing her traditions with. She has enjoyed telling me a lot about her culture and traditions in our time working together.
So we were just talking in-between customers when I became a little curious. I work in an area that has a large Persian population, and according to my coworker, the concentration of Persians in this area is second only to Los Angeles. So back in March about a week before Persian New Year, I noticed that a lot of her Persian clientele were coming in to buy new one-dollar, five-dollar, and ten-dollar bills. I was curious about why this was happening, and so I asked my coworker about it.
My first thought when I heard about this tradition, was what religion is this derived from? My immediate assumption was Islam, as that was the only religion that I was familiar with from the Middle East, besides Judaism and Christianity, of course. What I found was a lot more interesting. The tradition is derived from Zoroastrianism. I had never heard of this religion, and so I thought maybe it was some fringe religion that was particular to the region that my informant was from, but I could not have been further from wrong. Zoroastrianism predates both Christianity and Islam. Furthermore, the religion has a large following; 300 million people celebrate Nowruz every year. It is important to note though, that Zoroastrianism is considered to more of a cultural tradition in a lot of social circles, including that of my informant. The tradition of Nowruz, for example, while having its roots in its own ancient belief system, is widely celebrated by Muslims and Christians. The “book of wisdom” that is placed on the Haft-Seen table is even considered to be interchangeable. People place the Quran, Bible, and other books such as the Avesta on the table. This sparked a lot of curiosity and interest about this topic and left me with a lot of questions. Where do you draw the line between religion and cultural belief?
For an interesting article showing the popularity of Nowruz, even during the COVID pandemic, see:
Kaffashi A, Jahani F. Nowruz travelers and the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran. Infection control and hospital epidemiology. 2020;41(9):1121-1121. doi:10.1017/ice.2020.152