The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Forty-Four, Nowruz at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, by Marin Ekstrom

The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Forty-Four, Nowruz at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, by Marin Ekstrom

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Despite the Gregorian calendar “standardizing” January 1st as the start of the New Year, its inception varies from culture to culture. In the case of Nowruz, which is primarily celebrated in Iran (although parts of Central Asia, South Asia, northwestern China, and southeastern Europe also observe it), the New Year is based on the spring equinox. The holiday traces its origins to Zoroastrian practices, and like many other spring holidays, features a variety of rituals to commence the rebirth and renewal associated with the season. The most iconic Nowruz tradition is the haft seen table, or the “Table of Seven S’s.” A table is covered with seven sacred items that all begin with the letter “S” in the Persian language: serkeh (vinegar), senied (dried fruit), sir (garlic), seeb (apples), sabzeh (greens), samanu (wheat pudding), and sumac (crushed berry spice). In addition, other popular haft-seen items include a mirror, an orange in a bowl of water, a bowl of goldfish, colorfully dyed eggs, hyacinths, candles, and sacred books (i.e. the Quran, the Shamaneh, the poetry of Hafez). The items have symbolic qualities attached to them that will bestow the family with happiness and fortune in the coming year. Another key practice is fire jumping. People make small bonfires and jump over them while uttering a special phrase; the flames in turn take away the bad things that occurred in the previous year. The festivities described only constitute a fraction of the rich cultural traditions associated with Nowruz, but luckily I got a taste of it when I visited the Freer and Sackler Gallery’s exhibition on this holiday.

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The first display that I encountered was an exquisite haft seen table that was not only adorned with most of the ritual items described above, but also softly colored flower petals, wads of gumdrops and flowers, and whimsical figurines of traditional Persian folk characters. Although I took pictures, they honestly do not do justice to actually seeing the display in person. I could not stay there long, however, as many people, particularly Persian-speaking families, were crowded around it. In fact, there were youngsters, parents, and grandparents abound throughout the museum! I admired them for taking so much pride in their language and culture and sharing it with their children, all while taking the time to savor the simple pleasures of this springtime festival.

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As I ventured on, I encountered another haft seen, which, while simpler and earthier than the other one, was still stunning. I entered a wing where various activities were being conducted. I observed a young man painting people’s names in the Persian calligraphy by utilizing stylized forms and colors to transform their names into works of art. Another stand featured the Falnama, or “Book of Omens.” The Falnama is an old tradition in which someone turns to a random page, and depending on what brilliantly illustrated story and series of texts he/she turns to, that will reveal his/her fortune. Lastly, I toured the exhibit Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, which featured breathtaking metalwork and dishware from the early civilizations of Iran. All of the brought the cultures of Iran and Nowruz-celebrating countries to life, and it was amazing to partake in these festivities.


Sources Consulted

Click to access NowruzCurriculumText.pdf

Picture Credit (What’s in Haft Seen and why?):

For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see
For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see

The North Star Project 2013-2014 School Year Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We gratefully acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also warmly welcome Duluth East High School and Dodge Middle School to the North Star Project.

Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.

Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.


Filed under Marin Ekstrom, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

18 responses to “The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Forty-Four, Nowruz at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, by Marin Ekstrom

  1. Sam Yocum

    This article is really interesting. I never knew about Nowruz before and because of reading this, I wish to learn more! All of the pictures and the way everything was described was well done, making it all easy to understand and all the more interesting.

  2. Ruby P.

    Wow. that is very interesting. I have never heard of the “holiday” Nowruz. I really like how detailed your article is it really helps to visualize everything and I really enjoyed the pictures!

  3. Megan Hennen

    What a cool opportunity, Marin! And thank you for sharing. It’s really interesting to think about how calendars, a man-made creation, differ around the world. It makes me wonder how much of an impact they have on us. For example, what if we decided to move the mark of a new year to a different month entirely? How attached are we to having the first of January being the ‘fresh start’?

  4. Samantha Frascone

    It was fascinating to read abut such a unique holiday. I never knew that Nowruz even existed. The Persian calligraphy is what stood out to me the most. It’s unlike any other writing I have ever seen before and it is truly beautiful.

  5. Austin

    This is the first time I have ever heard of Nowruz so thank you for sharing! I would be a little hesitant to jump over a bonfire depending on its size. Sounds like it has a much more symbolic meaning then the time I attempted this with friends a few summers ago. The calligraphy was really neat and artistic! Is the arabic language written from left to right or right to left? I have always felt cursed being left handed smudging every word in the English language.

  6. Bri Curtis

    This article is amazing! It shocks me how many things around the world I am unaware of such as Nowruz. I also find it fascinating the types of traditions and customs that are so different and unique from customs we have here. The food is so different, and interesting and that is what makes traveling such a wonderful experience, because you become familiar with unfamiliar things.

  7. Maria O

    I agree with Megan’s comment above. It is mind-blowing to realize that time, something that we usually take for granted, is such a relative element. In small countries, for examples, there might not be different time zones, whereas here in the United States, since it is such a large nation, people have to negotiate differing sense of time when communicating across the country.

  8. Pictures of art rarely do justice to the originals.

  9. Johanna Jurgens

    This is extremely interesting. I love how there is also new cultures and traditions to learn from, and I hope to learn a lot of them while traveling abroad.

  10. Maija

    Pictures are never able to capture the beauty or wonders of those objects, but they still look quite amazing! I like how the families were there and showing the younger generations what their culture is like. That is always good to see!

  11. Mindy Aubin

    I’m glad you have pictures because it would be really hard to visualize without them. These traditions sound really interesting. It’s crazy how traditions can be so different throughout the world and we don’t even know about them. It would be interesting to learn more about other parts of the worlds traditions and about the things they celebrate in contrast to what we celebrate here in the US.

  12. Kyle Hellmann

    I really like the idea of the new year being brought on by an equinox, instead of just the first of January! You really learned a lot going here, and it shows how much one can learn of another culture in a short visit!

  13. Miranda King

    My favorite part of this article was the picture of the calligraphy. It was absolutely beautiful. This reminds me of how wonderful other languages truly are.

  14. Samantha Roettger

    I am very fascinated about Middle Eastern culture but unfortunately have little knowledge about it. Thank you for sharing this unique holiday celebrated in Iran. It is so interesting how different people celebrate similar holidays. For example, the New Year in the U.S. is not as meaningful as it is in other cultures. We use the holiday as an excuse to party when it maybe should be celebrated more like the Iranians. Very cool piece!

  15. Tommy Traaholt

    Very cool article. I had never heard of Nowruz before this article, and i found it very interesting. No matter how many different article i can read, each culture is distinctly unique to all the others. It makes you think a little when you realize that all calendars are different in some way, and it’s a different concept.

  16. Matt Breeze

    This is such a cool article! Americans, myself included, often forget that the People of Iran are mostly Persian and not Arab. This is a large distinction as the language, religion, culture and history as well as celebrations as you have described are different. All too often the middle east is generalized when the area is very diverse. I enjoy how this article makes Iranians seem more human with an interesting culture and history. All too often Iranians are pictured in the American media as only being an enemy, it is nice to see the Iranians being portrayed as real people. Thank you!

  17. Eleni Birhane

    I enjoyed reading this article. I learned a lot about a culture I knew very little about. It seems the Nowruz is quite an eventful and tradition filled holiday. You are lucky you got a chance to visit and learn more about a part of the Iranian culture and awesome for sharing it with all of us. I also wish I could have my name written in Persian calligraphy, it looks very cool.

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