Iranian New Year
Money Practices in the new year
by Eiman Behzadi, Tamara Dahhan, Anika Pinkstaff, and Dustin Stevens
There is an old Persian proverb that when translated says, “A good new year is identified by its spring” (1). This proverb relates directly to the practice of Norouz. Norouz, (also called Persian New Year) is the Iranian celebration of the first day of the spring, or the vernal equinox. The word Norouz literally means “new day.” As part of the celebration people traditionally buy new cloths, clean out their houses, and get rid of their bad deeds to start anew. Norouz is associated with the bringing of good luck, good fortune, and fertility to the New Year. The celebration of Norouz is composed of many small celebrations, with each one emphasizing the major theme of Norouz in a different way. In these celebrations, money manifests itself through the theme of: new beginnings, rebirth, fertility and good fortune. While money is not the central focus of the celebration, its role is a powerful and symbolic item in most of the Norouz celebrations.
The origin of Norouz is an event that has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years. It precedes the birth of both Christianity and Islam. Its roots date back to the beginning of the Zoroastrian religion (2). One thing that is very interesting about Norouz is that it has appeared and reappeared multiple times in the history of the Persian Empire. During the Sassanid Empire (226-650 A.D.) the celebration of Norouz flourished. This era celebrated Norouz by holding special rituals and ceremonies in the court where the “King handed out precious gifts to the treasury and distributed other gifts among the audience” (3). In the Sassanid Empire, Norouz was considered the most important day of the year (2).
The Arab invasion (650-1219), which brought Islam to the Persian Empire, halted the celebration of Norouz for nearly two centuries due to civil and political unrest. However, the Arabs later decided to bring back Norouz because the eidee gifts stimulated the economy. Norouz flourished in the Persian Empire until the Mongol invasion in 1219-1500, in which time Norouz disappeared again. It was not until the Mongols left and the Safavid Dynasty emerged that Norouz slowly returned to become the national tradition it once was (3).
In 1979 the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979) fell and the present Islamic fundamentalist took over Iran. Their leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, deemed that Norouz was an un-Islamic practice. Thus for a short period Norouz was halted, but soon re-emerged, due to protest by many Iranian citizens. One man interviewed believed that Norouz was too powerful of a celebration for the government to make illegal (4).
Thus, over time, the Norouz ritual has evolved and diversified into many different interpretations of the celebration. The reappearance of Norouz throughout the history of the Persian Empire shows that the idea of celebrating the coming of spring is a theme that is central to those living in the Middle East. Norouz has come to be an important and integral part of Persian culture, integrating different aspects of life into one celebration and bringing together all those who belong to this celebration. Norouz transcends religious boundaries, and brings people together based on the idea of nationality. Whether it is in the home country of its origin, or it is oversees, people come together to find solidarity in the ancient ritual that is Norouz.
Modern Times of Norouz
To this day, Norouz is celebrated not only by Iranians, but also by people of other countries and territories that may once have been influenced by the Persian Empire. Norouz is celebrated also in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and parts of Iraq (2). The celebration differs from one geographical area to another; every culture seems to have their own way of celebrating the New Year. This is especially the case among the Persian community living in the United States and more specifically in southern California. While the origin of Norouz is deeply rooted in the culture of the Persian Empire, it is hard to say when the money practices in the celebration began. We can say though that in today’s celebration of Norouz, money operates as a powerful symbolic item, and is involved in more than one of the events associated with Norouz. What remains constant in the different interpretations of Norouz is that money is involved directly in its practice.
Norouz has two main parts. The first is pre-new year, which is associated with the purging of bad luck, cleaning, and preparing for the New Year. The second part is the New Year itself, and is associated with bringing good fortune to your family and friends to ensure a happy and fruitful new year. Both of these constituents of the New Year have their manifestations in the form of money. While the money practices that are part of the Persian New Year are not central to the celebration itself, the use of money helps reinforce the ultimate theme of rebirth, new beginnings, fertility, and good fortune.
Some of the events that are practiced in the pre-new year celebration may have little to do with money but instead feed into the theme of the New Year itself. Most of the pre-new year events, however, have an association with money. The last Wednesday of the old year is called Chahar Shanbe Soori. On this day people usually gather in the streets or at the beach and jump over built fires and recite “Give me your beautiful red color, and take back my sickly pallor!” This is done in an effort to bring good health to oneself for the coming New Year (5). On the last Thursday of the year, called Shabeh Dadan, families go to the cemetery to visit relatives that have past away, and give alms for the sake of the dead.
Another interesting custom involved in pre-new year is Koozeh Shekastan, the breaking of earthen jars. The family places several low denomination coins, pieces of charcoal, and rocks into the jar. The jar is then taken to the roof of the house and the contents of the jar are tossed onto the streets, while the practitioners recite, “my pains and misfortunes onto the street” (2,6) This particular custom is not widely celebrated by Iranians living in the United States, and is more prevalent in Iran and other surrounding countries. However, it exemplifies the types of customs that have evolved in the pre-new year to rid oneself of bad luck before the coming of the New Year.
Another pre-new year event is the cleaning out of old items in one’s house. This may be associated with the casual practice here in the United States known as “spring cleaning.” Families clean out their houses to get ready for the arrival of the New Year, and usually buy new items for the house and new outfits for the family to be worn on the day of the New Year.
The moment just before the arrival of the New Year is known as Saati Tahvil, the countdown to Norouz. In our interviews, we found that some families gather around the Haft Seen table and, right before the change of the year, all of the family members, wearing their new clothes, hold a brand new, usually gold, coin in their hand for good luck and quietly wait for the New Year to approach (6).
The first day of Norouz is when the Haft Seen is set. This marks the beginning of the New Year celebration, which lasts for fourteen days. Sofreh-e Haft Sin (cloth of seven dishes), is the setting of seven objects that start with the letter “S”. It is usually placed in the nicest area of the house and can indicate the family’s wealth and prosperity. Each of the things has a symbolic meaning associated with the themes of the New Year, depicting an Iranian virtue that is desired to be possessed (2). These are the items of the Haft seen:
Sabzeh – wheat or lentil sprouts growing in a dish symbolizing rebirth
Samanu - pudding made of wheat symbolizing wealth
Senjed – dried fruit of Jujube tree symbolizing love
Seer - garlic symbolizing medicine
Seeb – apples symbolizing beauty and health
Somaq – sumac berries symbolizing the sun
Serkeh – vinegar symbolizing age
Sonbol – hyacinth flower symbolizing the arrival of spring
Sekkeh - gold coins symbolizing prosperity and wealth
Items such as pastries, food dishes, candles, eggs, and a holy book such as the Koran, Bible, or Torah may also be placed on the table even though they do not start with an “S” (2). The number of possible items which can be placed on the sofreh emphasizes the many different combinations and ways people can celebrate the New Year, even according to their religion.
Through interviews we have learned that people use the items in the Haft Seen to reaffirm certain beliefs or political opinions. One girl told us that when her mother places the sekkeh on the haft seen display, she uses a mix of Persian money in the form of gold coins from the old Shah regime, and gold American dollar coins to symbolize her and her family’s political position. By doing this she shows her support for the old Shah regime rather than the existing Islamic regime, while also displaying her patriotism towards the United States (7).
It was also found through an interview with an elder lady who lived the majority of her life in Iran that originally Haft Seen used to be Haft Sheen, which denotes seven things beginning with the sound of “sh,” not “s.” One of the items that was apart of the sofreh was sharab, which means alcohol. She explained that after the Arab invasion, which brought Islam to Persia in 650 A.D., Haft Sheen became Haft Seen because the consumption of alcohol was not allowed in Islam. Thus came the introduction of words that began with “S” sounds. This included the word sekkeh. Sekkeh means money, and before this time the sekkeh would not have been a part of the Haft sheen on the first day of Norouz, giving us a small hint as to when the origin of the money practices in Norouz began. However, this lady believes that this is purely a myth and that the practice has always been Haft Seen for reasons that speculate what the word sharab really meant.
Another important part of the New Year celebration involves Eidee money, in which elders give money to youths. For those celebrating in southern California, the money is usually in the form of brand new American paper dollars. The money is usually blessed by placing it in the Holy book that is on the Haft Seen display and is usually marked with the signature of the elder on the bill. If the money is placed in the holy book it is usually under a scripture or surah of whatever the family wants the New Year to reflect. The page may be about doing good deeds, success, prosperity, and so on (7). The money is then handed out to the youth, who respectfully accepts the money from the elder. Elders give money in hopes that the youth will have a good new year. Some of the people interviewed explained that the eidee money is given mostly as a symbol of Norouz, so that the celebration continues. The idea of gifting in money is not about consumerism, but rather about the upholding of Norouz tradition (8). By gifting in money, and physically earmarking it, those who practice this celebration believe it may bring more money and prosperity.
The money can either be regarded as economic or symbolic by those who receive it. The money is usually not spent if it has been written on a lower denomination, such as $1 or $2 bills. One girl interviewed said that she saved all bills that were under $5 and would place them in her glove compartment in her car next to her small Koran. She believed that it would be wasteful not to spend anything larger that $5. While the $1 and $2 bills are symbolic, the larger bills seem to have worth value economically, and they are spent. She keeps the smaller bills for good luck and to ensure safe journey (7). Other youths place the bills in their wallets so that it can bring them more money. Some youths that we interviewed said that they received money that sometimes was not even new or written on. It also was given to them purely to spend for their own purposes; showing that the evolution of the gifted money may slowly become something that is purely economic (9).
When asked whether they would rather receive a gift over money, most wanted money because it was the more traditional way to be gifted (10). While some may believe that money may be an impersonal way to gift someone, the money has an important symbolic meaning attached to it. Our interviewees explained that gifts would be more personal, but would not carry the same symbolism as money. In Norouz, the money symbolizes prosperity and wealth. The same symbolism may not be achieved with the purchase of a gift.
Along with the dispersal of eidee money to youths, Norouz visits are also made to family and close friends, which is known as Eide Dedanee (11). Visits are usually first made to elders, and these visits are expected to be reciprocated. To not reciprocate a visit is considered very bad manners, and will bring bad luck to you and your family in the New Year. During Norouz it is important to keep harmonious ties with your family and friends because what happens in the beginning of the New Year is a marker for what will occur during the rest of the year.
Many years ago it was customary that during Norouz visits, a character named Haji Firooz would come to entertain one’s guests to promote a happy and joyous new year. Haji Firooz is a black-faced character dressed in a red costume who heralds the New Year. His character has been controversial in recent Iranian history inciting some racial controversy, although the character of Haji Firooz has always been welcomed during the Norouz celebration. Years ago, Haji Firooz would go from house to house to perform and would receive money for his performance. Over time, this practice evolved into children dressing up as Haji Firooz and parading around their neighborhoods to collect treats and coins from neighbors (12). Although this practice mostly occurs in Iran, those shopping at local ethnic food markets in southern California can still find little dolls and ornaments of Haji Firooz during the Norouz season.
The last big celebration of Norouz is Sizdah Bedar, which means “getting rid of thirteen”. It is an open celebration featuring music, dancing, and food, all of which must take place outdoors. This 13th day after Norouz marks the end of the old year. It is deemed bad luck to stay indoors and spent outdoors to end the holiday season in a happy and joyous way. In the United States Sizdah Bedar has been an important way to bring the Persian community together to celebrate this common holiday (2).
Thus, over time Norouz has become the embodiment and essence of the Iranian culture. It has transformed, and evolved just as all Iranians have throughout the years. Norouz has become a statement that reflects the persistence, and hard-nosed attitude that Iranians possess. Norouz is not just a celebration of the New Year, it is the symbol that proclaims, “this is who I am, and you are not going to get rid of me!” Throughout this process, money has shown itself as one of the major trademarks of the celebration. Just like the celebration, and its people, the money in Norouz has evolved as well. Money is not just a currency that gets you a commodity; it has become a tool that brings all people of the same community together as one.