When I first became interested in holiday folklore, as a student at Reed College, I discovered a trio of cool holidays that originated in Persia: Red Wednesday (when you say good-bye to all the things that trouble you), Persian New Year or Naw-Ruz, (which is celebrated like Easter or Passover with a big feast), and The 13th Outside (when you spend the day outside picnicking). I’ve been celebrating some version of those holidays for decades now.
I still remember celebrating Red Wednesday with my best friend from college and subsequent roommate, Ellen. We placed a votive candle (substituting for a bonfire) on the hardwood floor in our post-college apartment in Los Angeles, and jumped over it, shouting, “Your rosy cheeks for me; my pallor for you.”
Although I knew that you were supposed to eat seven foods that started with S on Naw-Ruz, I didn’t know the names of those foods in Farsi, so when I started celebrating Naw-Ruz with my young daughter, we adopted a Naw-Ruz menu of spinach salad with sunflower seeds, spaghetti squash, smoked salmon, and strawberry sorbet. That still works for us years later, although we now know the symbolic foods that have been served by Persian families for centuries.
Like most ritual meals, both the decorations on the table and the food eaten have symbolic meanings. The table is set with dishes of sprouted seeds (symbolizing the new growth of spring), a sacred book; a mirror; candles; an incense burner; water with a live goldfish in it (we usually substitute an orange in a bowl of water); flowers (we use hyacinths); colored eggs; and a long, twisting branch (I take one from the contorted filbert near my house), which symbolizes a long life (and usually leafs out in the days that follow).
The seven foods that should be set on the table include serkeh (vinegar), sumac (the spice), sir (garlic), samanu (a paste made from germinating wheat), sib (an apple), senjed (the fruit of the sorb tree), and sabzi (fresh green herbs). Seven foods that start with SH can also be presented: sharab (wine), shakar (sugar), shir (milk), shireh (syrup), shahd (honey), shirini (candy), and shir-berenj (rice pudding).
One traditional dish is an egg dish full of fresh green herbs and cooked like a frittata. Another is a dip combining spinach and yogurt. Other traditional dishes include sabzi polow, which is basmati rice with seven vegetables, and panir-va sabzi, which is a salad of fresh raw vegetables, basil, tarragon, scallions, red radishes, and mint with feta cheese. As you can see, the emphasis is on the fresh greens of spring, along with milk (being produced by the animals for their young) and eggs (with their symbolism of new life).
On the eve of Naw-Ruz, people serve a dish called Ajeel-e Moshgel Goshah, which means “unraveler of difficulties” and is a mix of seven dried fruits and nuts: pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, peaches, raisins, and figs. With this dish we see the seeds coming forward as emblems of new life.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”