Friday, March 20, 2015

Happy Nowruz! Henna for the Springtime New Year

Happy Nowruz! This weekend marks the spring equinox, March 21, marked by many communities across Central and South Asia as Nowruz (نوروز‎, also transliterated Norooz, Newroz, Nauruz, etc.), the New Year.

This ancient holiday originated in Zoroastrian Persia, and is celebrated today by many ethnic groups throughout Central and South Asia, the Balkans, and the Levant (and, of course, in the diaspora), including Persians, Afghans, Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Desis, and more; it's also not restricted to any religion, and is celebrated by Zoroastrians, Muslims, Jews, Alevis, and Baha’is, among others. There are many wonderful customs associated with Nowruz, including a table set with seven symbolic items each starting with the letter ‘sin’ (haft sin in Persian) or seven kinds of fruit (haft mewa); jumping over a fire as a celebration of the victory over darkness and a cleansing beginning for the year; spring cleaning; decorated eggs (like East European pysanky); new clothes; and of course, festive gatherings with many delicious traditional foods.

Families celebrating Nowruz outside Tehran, 1958; photo by Inge Morath.

Henna is also a traditional part of the festivities! The first records of Nowruz henna that I've found come from the late 19th century, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were mentioned in earlier Persian texts — I welcome the help of any Iranologists who might have references! But it's certainly attested well enough by European travelogues.