Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ringing It In: henna traditions for celebrating New Year's

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.

But what about the January New Year? Most cultures in the henna-using world use other calendars which do not celebrate the new year in January. However, in the early 20th century a few anthropologists and folklorists recorded a North African tradition to mark the January transition, which they called Yennaïr (from January), ‘am jdid [‘new year’ in Arabic] or asuggwas ujdid [‘new year’ in the Tamazight Berber language]. Some have suggested that this was a holdover from when the Julian calendar was introduced to North Africa in ancient times during the Roman occupation. Seen as the beginning of spring, this New Year was a time to start things off on the right foot, and thus auspicious behaviour (like leaping over a fire, putting on new clothes, eating symbolic food, and writing charms) was encouraged. It was also a dangerous time when spirits were afoot and sorcery could have extra powerful effects; thus the act of applying henna and kohl, with its baraka (blessing) and protective qualities, fit right in as a proper activity.

Thus traditions to apply henna and kohl for Yennaïr were noted in Algeria at Nedroma by Edmond Destaing (1905, pg. 69) and at Beni Snous (near Tlemcen) by Edmond Doutté (1909, pg. 547). Similarly, we see that Edvard Westermarck, the famed Finnish anthropologist of Morocco, describes how the Ait Nder of the Middle Atlas would apply henna for the New Year (1926, pg. 171-172):
On New Year’s eve, women and children have their hands and feet painted with henna, many men smear the same matter on the palms of their hands, and persons of both sexes put a little of it on their navels to prevent eructations; it is, moreover, applied to domestic animals that are white or have white spots on their bodies.

And what about Christian communities, who undoubtedly followed the Christian calendar starting on January 1? We know that henna was used by Christian communities through Africa, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Unfortunately I have only been able to find one reference to Christian New Year henna traditions, from a Nestorian Christian named Youël Benjamin Mirza. He describes the New Year celebrations in his home village of Nazie, in what is today Persian Azerbaijan, including the priest officiating the service with freshly-hennaed hair and beard (1922, pg. 101).

We’re still missing a lot of information — did Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrate the New Year with henna? What about Maronite Christians in Lebanon? I have not yet seen any sources, but I look forward to continuing to research the issue. And if you have heard of any other New Year’s henna traditions, please post them in the comments below!

And have a happy, healthy, and — of course — henna-filled new year!

‘Alam, Hushang. Henna. Encyclopedia Iranica, London: Routledge, 2003.
Bent, James Theodore. New Year’s Day in a Persian Village. The English Illustrated Magazine, vol. 7, 1890, pp. 326-330.
Bonvalot, Gabriel. Du Caucase aux Indes à travers le Pamir. Paris: Librarie Plon, 1889.
Destaing, Edmond. L’Ennayer chez les Beni Snous. Revue Africaine, vol. 256, 1905, pp. 51-70.
Doutté, Edmond. Magie et Religion dans l’Afrique du Nord. Algiers: Adolphe Jourdan, 1909.
Doubleday, Veronica. Three Women of Herat: A Memoir of Life, Love and Friendship in Afghanistan. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988.
Fekrat, Nasim. It's a New Year in Afghanistan. Afghanistan Crossroads, CNN blog, published March 22nd, 2010. Accessed here Dec. 29, 2013.
Mirza, Youël Benjamin. The Faith of My Fathers. Asia: the American Magazine on the Orient, vol. 22, 1922, pp. 100-104, 153.
Westermarck, Edvard. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1926
Wilson, Samuel Graham. Persian Life and Customs: with scenes and incidents of residence and travel in the land of the lion and the sun. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1895.

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