Regulars and Shorts

Persian New Year

By Katherine Pioli

Celebrate and ancient rite of spring.

Looking for a way to celebrate spring? You might give Norooz (also spelled Nowruz), the celebration of the Persian New Year, a try. An ancient practice, traced back to the Zoroastrian religion and celebrated across the Persian Empire (and now around the world) for over 3,000 years, Norooz has some elements that might seem familiar to people of various faiths, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Hyacinths and painted eggs are common items found during the time of celebration and, as with the Jewish Sedar, the special foods of Norooz have strong cultural and seasonal symbolism: sabzeh, lentil sprouts grown in a dish symbolize rebirth; somaq, sumac berries symbolize the color of the sunrise; and serkeh, vinegar symbolizes age and patience.

For our city’s Iranian-American community, the celebration of Norooz in Utah has a long and healthy tradition. This month, for the first time, Eastern Arts, a group that celebrates the music, dance and traditions of the countries that once formed the Persian Empire, brings Norooz to all Utahns during a special public celebration on March 16, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (an event generously supported by the Utah Humanities, the National Folk Organization, UDAM, ZAP, and Salt Lake City Arts Council).

Katherine St. John, director of Eastern Arts, has long celebrated the holiday, though her own ancestry comes nowhere near the countries of Central Asia. An Irish-American raised Episcopalian in Minnesota and now a longtime Utah resident and convert to the LDS faith, St. John seems happy to prove through example that you don’t have to be of Persian descent to enjoy Norooz.

“I would say Norooz is a secular holiday. Regardless of their faith people all across Central Asia and the Persian diaspora— Afganis and Iraqs, Turks, Kurds—will celebrate it,” says St. John. “The holiday is rooted in a very ancient culture and it still has meaning. If we didn’t do it, we would feel something missing.”

The Norooz festivities last for two weeks starting on the spring Equinox, which falls on March 20. Over the two weeks, families visit each other and have picnics in the park since, St. John explains, “it’s unlucky to stay at home during Norooz.” Bonfire jumping is another tradition. Called Chaharshanbeh Soori, it can be experienced (along with music and dancing) at Zaferan Cafe, a Persian/Iranian restaurant in Cottonwood Heights (Tuesday, March 14, 6:30pm- midnight). It is especially enjoyed by the children (who usually jump over very small fires, sometimes a brick of burning coal). Anyone who wants the full Norooz experience will also display a bowl of goldfish during the holiday since the goldfish represents life.

At the Rose, caterers from area Persian restaurants will provide traditional tea and pastries in a Persian tea house. You can play the old Persian game favorites, backgammon and chess as your kids get into art activities. Into the evening stop by for a discussion of Norooz history, a reading of Rumi poetry and a performance of Iranian dance and music. Let this bright and ancient expression of spring help wipe away the doldrums of winter.

Norooz: Thursday, March 16, 4-9pm, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 110 West 300 South. Performance at 7pm. Dances of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Uzbekistan and more. Admission free.

This article was originally published on February 27, 2017.