IN Iran, the snows are melting on the Elburz Mountains and Mount Damavand, bringing floods of water through the ganots (underground water tunnels) and into the villages and cities of the country. The Persian winter will soon be over and the buds on the almond, pistachio, pomegranate, apricot, and peach trees will be heavy with blossoms; the meadows and plains will be brilliant with wildflowers. And families are beginning to prepare to celebrate Noruz Jamshidi, the New Year, a universal holiday. The words mean: no - new, ruz - day, and Jamshidi - the Persian name for the first legendary king of Iran. For the Iranians, spring begins at the exact moment of the vernal equinox when the sun passes into the zodiac sign of the ram. At that moment, be it midnight or dawn, cannons in each city and town signal the start of celebrations.
For 13 days, families and friends visit and exchange gifts, and are consumed in celebrations. Everyone must wear something new, at least one thing must be brand-new; and dressed in their best, on the first day they go to the head of the family and offer greetings; the traditional greeting is ``May you live a hundred years,'' or ``May your shadow never grow dim,'' that is, may you keep your good health.
Fifteen days before March 21, households begin preparation of plants that are often given as gifts to family and friends. Grains of wheat, lentil, or barley are germinated in water. Porous clay jars are filled with water and then the grain is bound to the outside of the jars with absorbent cotton material. Within a few days, the grain begins to sprout and cling to the jar and the cotton cloth can be removed.
The sprouting grain grows upward to the light of the sun, and by Noruz a delightful mass of fresh green blades heralds the spring. In some homes the germinated seeds are put on a simple plate. In whatever form, this is a beautiful symbol of new life. This gift is kept until the 13th day of Noruz and then disposed of and thrown into running water, if possible. With this tradition, the household throws away all misfortune.
While the seeds are germinating, the households are busy intensely preparing to celebrate family and friends. Persians love food and hospitality and have raised these graces to the level of an art. A special feast table of Haft-Sin is prepared: a collection of seven things all beginning with the letter S in Farsi (the language of Iran). Sib, apple; sabze, a green vegetable; sumac, a spice; seekrkeh, vinegar; samanu, a sweet-tasting pudding prepared with green wheat; senjed, an olive; and sonbul, a hyacinth. Also laid out on the table are a mirror, a clock, and a copy of the Koran.
At the moment of the sun's entry into the sign of the ram the festivities begin, and in many homes when the head of the family reads verses from the Koran. Candles are lit, one to represent each member of the family. These are placed in front of the mirror where their reflections symbolize a bright future. In some families, a coin prepared by the Iranian mint each year for this purpose is given to each family member, including little children.
Sizdah, the 13th day after Noruz, is spent out-of-doors; a happy prelude to the business of settling down to another year's hard work! It is a day to go out to the countryside for a picnic; or if that is not possible to go out into one's garden. On Sizdah the countryside around the large cities is filled with people gathered around their rugs and samovars, drinking tea, telling stories, or walking around the tombs of their eminent poets, Hafiz or Sa'di in Shiraz.
This tradition of exchanging greetings and gifts and celebrating so elaborately the coming of spring dates back to the ancient Achaemenian court at Persepolis, built by Darius, several centuries before Christ. Carvings on the Grand Staircase at Persepolis reveal envoys bringing Noruz gifts to the king who always held audience for kings and ambassadors from foreign lands and for the craftsmen and artisans of his own country.