With 2014 fast approaching, I thought I’d look at some of the ways that henna has been used to celebrate the New Year.
Some of you may be familiar with the “Persian New Year,” Nowruz, celebrated at the Spring Equinox (March 21). This ancient holiday is Zoroastrian in origin but is celebrated today by many ethnic and religious groups, including also Muslims, Alevis, and Baha’is, throughout Central Asia. There are many fascinating customs associated with Nowruz, including a table set with seven symbolic items each starting with the letter ‘sin’ (in Persian); jumping over a fire as a celebration of the victory over darkness and a cleansing beginning for the year; and many delicious traditional foods.
|A young Nasser al-Din Shah, ready for Nowruz|
Henna is also a traditional part of the festivities! French traveller Gabriel Bonvalot noticed in Salyan (today in Azerbaijan) that men, women and children would get their hands, feet, beards, and hair hennaed for Nowruz (Bonvalot, 1889, pg. 27). British archaeologist James Theodore Bent noticed the same in Izadkhvast, Iran, describing how “no Persian however poor would enter on a new year without some new garment, and they all looked particularly clean, for it is the custom on the day before the feast for every one to go to the bath, to have his hair dyed black and his nails dyed yellow with henna” (1890, pg. 328). Similarly, the missionary Samuel Graham Wilson, whom we’ve met before on this blog, described the Nowruz customs he saw in Iran in 1895, including the “Haft Sin” plate; he notes:
As the great day approaches, every man says to himself, “Well, to-morrow is Noruz. I must get my head shaved, go to the bath, dye my hands, nails, and beard with henna, put on a clean skull-cap, and see if the tailor has my new coat ready. I must buy some sugar and tea, tobacco and candy, and then I shall be ready for all comers.”
This usage has continued into recent times. Ethnomusicologist Veronica Doubleday, who lived in Herat, Afghanistan, in the mid-1970s, describes how her friends hennaed their hands and feet for Nowruz (1988, pg. 66). And henna is still used to celebrate Nowruz today, as noted by Nasim Fekrat; and it’s not just people who get henna! Hushang ‘Alam wrote in the Encyclopedia Iranica that “the mane and tails of horses, donkeys, and mules were hennaed in Shiraz during the Nowruz until a few decades ago” (2003). I haven’t seen any sources describing Baha’i or Zoroastrian henna for Nowruz but I’m fairly confident they would share in these traditions.
|Hennaed donkeys, Iran, 1956. Photo by Inge Morath.|