One of Mahsa Ghoreishi’s favourite childhood memories was a crisp banknote pressed into her hand by her grandparents every spring.
It was one of many family traditions she enjoyed on Nowruz, the Persian new year, which falls on the March equinox, in her hometown of Esfahan, a charming city of blue-tiled mosques and a famous bazaar.
“You go every place and you get your different notes and at the end of the day you sit and calculate how much money you got and now you can spend it however you want,” recalled Ghoreishi with a fond look in her eyes.
Now living in Pictou County, she celebrated Nowruz by feasting with friends and fellow community members at the North End Rec Centre on Wednesday evening.
At home, her family gathered round a specially decorated table known as the haft sin, seven items beginning with the letter ‘s’ in Persian.
These typically include sabzi, green wheat or lentil sprouts grown in a dish; samanu, a sweet pudding made from germinated wheat; senjed, dried fruit from the oleaster tree; seer (garlic), sib (apples), serkeh (vinegar) and sumac berries.
The sabzi symbolizes rebirth, samanu represents health, the senjed is for love, garlic for medicine, apples for beauty, the sumac represents the sunrise and vinegar stands in for age and patience.
Many Iranian families also decorate their haft sins with mirrors, candles, coins, sweets, goldfish, painted eggs, hyacinth flowers, holy books or works of poetry by Hafiz or Rumi.
Reading verses from Hafiz was and still is a popular Nowruz pastime in the Ghoreishi household.
“You think about something and then open the Hafiz and read it, so you do it usually for each person,” said Ghoreishi. “When I think back to my childhood the best part was everyone sitting around the table and then the turning of the new year.”
On the last Wednesday before Nowruz, Iranians jump over small fires in the festival of Chaharshanbe Soori, to purify themselves of any negativity from the old year.
Both Chaharshanbe Soori and Nowruz are rooted in the ancient Persian Zoroastrian faith, of which there still a few thousand believers in Iran today, for whom the festival remains a holy day. The name Nowruz literally means ‘new day’ in Persian.
Nowruz is celebrated in Iran, Afghanistan, parts of the former Soviet Union including Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Kurdish areas in Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
Nowruz is also celebrated further afield in the Balkans, as well as Persian and Kurdish-speaking communities across the world.
In Eastern Europe, a related festival known as Marzanna occurs around the spring equinox. There, villagers carry effigies of this Slavic goddess of death and winter through the streets and throw them in the water, often setting them alight first.