Food, family, friends – Customs and traditions for Nowruz

Turning the corner into March and the promise of spring, with the flowers coming up, warmer temperatures and more hours of daylight, another holiday approaches. March 21 is the Afghan New Year, or Nowruz, a holiday celebrated in countries across the Middle East and all the way to India.

The holiday has a theme of rebirth and renewal – a new year as the change in season inspires greater productivity and prosperity for farmers who have survived another cold, harsh winter. Nowruz is the commencement of the Afghan calendar, Hejri Shamsi, and this holiday is widely celebrated through feasting, dancing and outdoor events and sharing festivities with family, friends and neighbours.

Keeping kinship with the past

Zabi Sarwari, general manager of the Afghan Kitchen, a restaurant in South Surrey shares his views on the holiday.

Zabi Sarwari, general manager, Afghan Kitchen | Photo courtesy of the Afghan Kitchen

“In the Afghan Community, mehla is a festival, and it is all about the Afghan culture and bringing it alive, a memory of what they do back home: kite flying, music, folk music, songs about Nowruz, make samanak, a sweet dish made from wheat grass,” he says. “It is about being happy, staying up all night with friends, families and neighbours, sharing the samanak pot.”

He explains several festivals, like Farmer’s Day and Festival of the Red Flowers as part of the connection to nature and the renewal spring brings. There is also buzkaghi, Afghan’s national sport which is a contest of strength and endurance with men on horseback dragging a deceased goat, demonstrating the rugged, rough and toughness – the persistence of the people.

In describing Nowruz as renewal, a new day, a new year, Sarwari likens it to a blessing, as part of the belief that we are never tested for something more than we can handle or a burden more than we can carry. There are certainly spiritual or religious ties to Nowruz, he says, speaking of the many people making a trip to Mazar Al Sharif to visit the Blue Mosque.

Resolutions – goals for the year ahead

Similar perspectives of Nowruz are shared by Abdul Samim, a member of the Afghan community. Samim, a settlement worker with the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia (ISSofBC), has had years of experience helping new immigrants connect to their culture from their home country and uses the lessons of the people that have gone before in helping them adapt to Canada and a new way of life while keeping their home country culture alive within.

“In my family, we celebrate [Nowruz] each year, like we did back in the home country. We decorate our home, cook traditional food and share this with family and friends. Not only enjoying food, music, song and dance, but promoting peace and solidarity – solidarity with friends, families and communities,” he says.

Samim also underlines the importance of the holiday in which most everyone can understand and relate to. Resolutions are also part of the traditional New Year in Canada.

“In our culture, Nowruz is the first day of the New Year, so I am celebrating two new years, the Canadian new year, where I am setting the resolution and then repeating at the second new year – to make it stronger,” he says.

In his work, working with newcomers and having his family life, Samim underlines the importance of managing time – whether coffee time, break time, work time or personal time – and this is certainly understood why this is an important resolution for all in keeping balanced.

As food is so central to culture, Sarwari points out the importance of the holiday as the changing of the season for farmers and moving out of the harsh winter into the first day of spring, a new day of greater productivity and prosperity. People would bring out their traditional clothes or be given new clothes and bring the family together and make many different dishes for feasting with family and neighbours. He describes one of the special dishes as haft mewa or ‘seven fruits,’ a dish of almonds, walnuts, pistachios, raisins and several others like sinjed, similar to dried cherries.

“Every day is a new day, and let the new day be a successful, prosperous, happy, a joyful year,” he says.