It is December 31 and excited partygoers are waiting for the clock to strike midnight. Dressed in shiny paper hats and brandishing loud noisemakers, people around America are waiting for a big silver ball to drop in Times Square. Old friends and families are reunited, resolutions are made, if not kept, and the lookers on begin to count down the end of the previous year. 3, 2, 1. The New Year begins with a bang. Couples unabashedly kiss in the streets of New York, people make champagne toasts to good fortune in the New Year, and kids wave noisemakers and throw confetti all over the living room.
However, for the many people who celebrate Nowruz, the Chinese New Year, or Diwali, celebrating the New Year does not involve champagne, giant silver balls or lots of confetti. In fact, these New Years celebrations do not even take place on January 1. Despite the blatant traditional cultural differences, however, you just might be surprised how similar the ideals of these celebrations really are.
Nowruz, also known as the Persian or Iranian New Year, is celebrated throughout the world on the vernal equinox, or the first day of spring. While Noruz itself is celebrated throughout the Middle East and parts of Northern Africa, this secular Persian holiday is most widely practiced in Iran today.
The date of Nowruz is determined by the solar calendar, organic chemistry graduate student Roozbeh Yousefi said. “It is the first day of the spring, so when the [Earth’s] cycle around the sun is completed, that is the New Year. So, our new year is not exactly at 12-o-clock. Sometimes it starts at 2or 3 a. m. This happens every three to four years,” Yousefi said.
The purpose of the Nowruz, like many New Years around the world, is to have a new clean start in life. Yousefi said the preparations for Nowruz are time consuming. “It starts one month early. It takes all of that month to get prepared for the [celebration]. This is the time that you clean the house; everything should be clean for the New Year,” he said. In Iran, people refer to this process as “shaking the home.” “We clean and ‘shake up’ our homes to get all of the dirt out in preparation for the New Year,” he said.
Once the house is clean, it is time to purify oneself for the New Year. This is done on the Wednesday before the New Year, often referred to as Chahârshanbe Sûrî, or the Wednesday Festival. This happens on Tuesday night right before the beginning of the last Wednesday of the year. “The last Tuesday night of the year we make a fire because in the ancient Mazdian religion people worshiped the god of fire. So people will gather in the streets, and make a fire, and jump [over] the fire…the concept is that the fire will clean all of your sins. This is the religious part of the festival,” Yousefi said.[Roozbeh2 ]
The most important element of Nowruz for most Persians, including Yousefi, is the Haft Sin table, or the “seven ‘S’ table.” “We cover [the table] with some kind of cloth, and we put different kinds of things on [it]. Most of these things start with [the letter] “S” which is the same as sin in the [Persian] alphabet,” Yousefi said. The traditional Haft Sin table, according to Yousefi “should have seven things that start with ‘S’ sounds.” These different “S” sounding items, such as samanu, which is a type of pudding, and sîr which is Persian for garlic, all symbolize different important elements of life such as rebirth, love, medicine, health, beauty, sunrise and patience. According to Yousefi, because Nowruz is a 13 day celebration, “we keep them [on the table] for 13 days.”
The Chinese New Year
This year the people of China and much of Southeast Asia will be celebrating the year of the Ox. Last year was the year of the Yang Earth Rat, more commonly known as the year of the Rat, or Wu Zi. The Chinese New Year, which comes at the end of the twelfth lunar month, has a different date each year, but is usually celebrated in late January or early February.
The history behind the Chinese New Year is a tale of monsters, death and fireworks. Human resources graduate student Mumu Yu said the word ‘year’ in Chinese is Nian. “[To the people of China] Nian is the name of a kind of monster,” Yu said. “It is said that every year this beast, Nian, comes on New Years Day to feast on the animals and people of China. The people are afraid of the monster [because] it threatens their lives.”
[lanterns2]For the Chinese, fireworks are not merely for celebratory purposes; they are also to scare away Nian. “To kind of scare away the monster, people use a lot of fireworks, or people will cook delicious food to bribe the monster, or something like that,” Yu said. People will also wear the color red because they believe that Nian is scared of the color and because it will bring them luck during the New Year. “Then when the monster has passed, [the people] are really thankful because the monster has already been here and the [people] are still alive.” Thus begins the 15 day long festival of the Chinese New Year.
For Yu and her family, much of the importance of the New Year celebration is the quality family time that is spent together during this secular holiday. “We have a huge dinner with all of the family on [New Year’s Eve] of the lunar year, and after that we [launch] fireworks and congratulate each other on the new years. We will [also] make dumplings together as a family and sometimes we will put coins in the dumplings and whoever eats the dumplings with the coins in them [gets] good luck,” Yu said. While individual family celebrations of the Chinese New Year vary from region to region, reconnecting with one’s family is what this holiday is all about.
Diwali, known as the “festival of lights,” is the Hindu celebration of the New Year. Traditionally celebrated as a five day long festival, the date of Hindu New Year is decided by the lunar calendar, and often takes place at the end of October or beginning of November.
[diwali]The celebration of Diwali comes from an old mythological legend that dates back thousands of years, advertising graduate student Nikita Shah said. According to a popular text called the “Ramayan,” meaning the “Chronicles of Lord Rama’s Life and Experiences,” legend has it that after being sent into exile for 11 years and defeating the evil demon-king Ravana, Lord Rama returned to civilization. “Townsfolk revered Lord Rama and lit up the entire village with lamps [upon his return]. This homecoming is Diwali; it is symbolic of the incoming of positivity and prosperity, the victory of good over the vanquished evil,” Shah said.
The decoration of choice for Diwali is lights, and lots of them. “No Diwali function is complete without the presence of lights,” Shah said. “Every nook and corner is illuminated with beautiful candles, oil lamps, floating water wicks and such.” [Shah]
But, Diwali is more than just a festival of lights; the celebration is also about the family and the community. “Diwali is the time to be kind, make New Year resolutions, spend time with family and give back to the community,” Shah said. “Families and relatives visit each others’ homes to exchange greetings and good wishes. Devout [Hindi] followers [will] conduct a religious ceremony to purify the energies in their homes and workplaces.”
To Shah, the festival itself is more about what it symbolizes than the traditions associated with it. Whether the activity involves lighting off firecrackers or cleaning the house, for Shah Diwali is, at its heart, “more a spiritual celebration than a material one. My favorite part of the celebration is the symbolism it has with being a festival of lights,” Shah said. “All the world needs something; it is a reminder to expel the darkness in our minds, in our global cultures, in our societies, and in this world as one whole entity.” Shah said that she is deeply fascinated by the energy, hope, faith and tranquility that a light source can conjure.
Whether it’s jumping over a fire, scaring off a monster, or celebrating the return of a famous deity there are many ways to celebrate the New Year. Regardless of these traditional cultural differences, however, there are still universal themes that permeate most New Years festivals. The importance of family, the necessity of purifying one’s life for the New Year, and welcoming the New Year are both ideals that transcend traditional cultural barriers.
So, with the advent of this New Year now upon us, there is much to consider about how we wish to proceed in 2009. Will we embrace this chance at a new clean beginning? Will we spend some time reuniting with our families? Whatever it is the world chooses to do on these New Year days, let us hope that these actions lead to love (Nowruz), luck (Chinese New Year), and light (Diwali).