One apple. Painted eggs and red hyacinth flowers. Small bowls of Persian nuts, berries and lentil sprouts. A mirror, some coins, an ancient Iranian poetry book, and a goldfish in a water bowl.
Those are the seemingly random items adorning Lena Javidiani’s small round table in the far corner of her apartment near a window that looks out towards the Mount-Royal Cemetery.
“They’re symbolic, and they’re for New Year’s,” she tells inquisitive guests.
Lena is of Iranian origins and Iranians have their own New Year’s, as do many other cultures around the world. Their New Year’s entails traditions that are elaborate, traditions that far exceed our little kiss at midnight. NowrÅ«z marks the first day of spring, usually on March 21, and that table is just one of its many traditions.
Lena is a first-year engineering student at Concordia University. She’s from Tehran, Iran and this is her first NowrÅ«z away from home. That has not stopped her parents from wanting to celebrate the traditional way. They flew over to Montreal a few days earlier to spend the 12 day festivity with Lena and her brother, who now works in Montreal.
When the Canadian parliament passed a bill on March 30, 2009 to add Nowruz to Canada’s national calendar, the large Iranian community here rejoiced. A year later, the UN’s General Assembly recognized the International Day of NowrÅ«z, describing it as a spring festival of Persian origin, which has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.
The celebration begins a few days before March 21. Almost every household in Iran embarks on a major spring-cleaning fiesta in association with the ‘rebirth of nature.’ Every family member gets at least one set of new clothes to wear on the first day. The next 12 days are spent first visiting the family’s elders then the rest of the extended family and finally friends.
This year, Lena’s parents were considered the elders here in Montreal, and so they were busy entertaining friends and family at her humble apartment.
The traditions intertwined with NowrÅ«z are many and so are variations of it. In Iran, the Islamic Regime attempted to suppress NowrÅ«z following the Iranian Revolution, but it was met with very little success. The Ayatollahs considered NowrÅ«z a pagan holiday and a distraction from more important things, namely Islamic holidays. (Muslims also celebrate their own New Year.)
The Iranian people, however, were determined to keep their centuries’ old traditions alive and kicking. “Because all the people were against government efforts to ban Nowruz, the government gave up and even started celebrating it on national TV, they just had to accept it,” said Lena’s father, as he twirled his thick, black moustache lined with greyish streaks.
A few days before the big dinner, Lena and her mother went about gathering the items they needed to decorate their table. They entered a pet store looking to buy a goldfish. When they approached the store owner, he laughed and said, “ Usually I sell 1 of those a month, this week alone I sold thirty!” Lena explained to the bewildered man that a goldfish for Iranians symbolizes a happy and active life and is set in a bowl of water every New Year’s to ensure a good year ahead.
“My favourite parts of NowrÅ«z are the fire festival and the last day, the 13th day,” said Lena. The Iranian festival of fire is marked by the last Wednesday before spring. Young and old flood the streets and the little alleys to make bonfires and jump over them. As they jump over the hungry flames, they sing in Persian, “Give me your beautiful red color, and take back my sickly pallor!”
Here in Canada, regulations regarding the instigation of fire are a tad stricter. Lena and her family substituted the fire with candles and jumped over those instead.
In Toronto however, the Iranian community was more successful in organizing a big fire-jumping festival. Thousands of people gathered at Richmond Hill to participate, including the mayor. Organizers set up fences around a few tiny fires and allowed the people to wait their turn. It was a celebration that showed just how far multiculturalism can go.
On the 13th day, Iranians leave their homes and picnic outdoors. The day is called Sizdah Bidar, which figuratively means passing the bad luck of the 13th day. While Lena was busy studying at the library unable to celebrate it the tradition way, a group of her Iranian friends took their grown lentil or wheat sprouts up to Mont-Royal park and spent the day barbecuing Kebab and enjoying the spring weather. As soon as they arrived, they tied their sprouts with a thread, made a wish and threw them into the distance.
As Lena and her family gather over a traditional dinner of rice and fish this March 21st, they await the exact moment of the arrival of spring before serving. Four candles, one for each member of the family, are set on the round, eccentric table in the corner. They have been lit beforehand and are left to die down on their own. Smoke drifts upwards in threadlike strands as their chatter and their wine-laced laughter intensifies.