THE Persians are eminently a social people. They are vivacious and entertaining; fond of jokes and story-telling, and ready in repartee. They are much given to visiting and feasting. This is remarkable, since the great bond of society with us is entirely wanting: the social intercourse of men and women is not permitted, and the idea of it shocks their sense of propriety. Men visit with men, women with women. Dancing amazes them beyond measure, and seems an immodest license and a perversion of liberty.
The Persians are a polite people. They have elaborate rules of etiquette, and many set phrases and compliments suitable for every occasion. Visits are made at the festivals, both for congratulation and condolence, and often for the transaction of business. The physician is honored with an hour's social chat before the ailments of the caller-in are mentioned. He is expected in return to make himself comfortable in the parlor for a prolonged tea-drinking before being inducted into the sickroom. Time is of little value. Social calls are often of three or four hours' duration.
The greatest social event in Persia is the festival of the New Year or Noruz. It commemorates the entrance of the sun into the sign of Aries at the vernal equinox. It is the most fitting and beautiful time for the New Year. Then the sacred year of the Jews and of some European nations began. March 25th was the first day of the year in Scotland until 1600, and in England until 1752. At this season, Persia, throughout most of its borders, begins to put on its robe of verdure, flowers begin to bloom, and the farmer takes up his work in the fields.
Some Persians affirm that the world began to move in its orbit on that day. Others place the origin of the festival in the time of Jemshid, the founder of Persepolis. He introduced the solar year, and celebrated its first day as a splendid festival. The sculptured procession on the great staircase at Persepolis is supposed to represent the bringing of presents from the various provinces at Noruz. This is the only festival of ancient Persia that has not been displaced by the sacred seasons of Mohammedanism. The Persians never fail to enter into its enjoyment, except when the movable lunar calendar of Islam brings some religious ceremony at the same time. From 1893 to 1896 Noruz falls in the great fast of Ramadan. The festivities with which ancient kings celebrated it are curiously described in the "Arabian Nights," in "The Enchanted Horse." In the introduction to this story it is said: "Noruz, or the new day, is a festival so solemn and so ancient throughout the whole extent of Persia, taking its origin even from the earliest period of idolatry, that the holy religion of the Prophet, pure and unsullied as it is, has been hitherto unable to abolish it; although it must be confessed that it is a custom completely pagan, and that the ceremonies observed in its solemnization are of the most superstitious nature. Not to mention large cities, there is no town, borough, village, or hamlet, however small, where the festival is not celebrated with extraordinary rejoicings. Those that take place at court surpass all others by the variety of new and surprising spectacles, so that nothing that is attempted in other parts of the world can approach or be compared with this sumptuous magnificence." A thousand years after Haroun-al-Raschid the festival still holds its place. To an outside observer its ceremonies do not seem as "pagan" as some of those connected with Shiahism.
Prior to the festival of Noruz the dervish pitches his white tent before the door of some nobleman, and sits there and yells, "Ya hak!" ["O truth!"] until his claims to charity are satisfied. The letter-carrier presents himself to receive an anam; the cook expects a new coat; the mirza, and even the physician, are remembered by their patrons; and the alderman receives goodly donations from his constituents. During the last week of the old year the bazaars are profusely decorated. Gay cloths, carpets, and shawls are exhibited in the shops. Pictures, mirrors, mottoes, bunting, and embroideries are hung up. Arches are constructed, spanning the streets with pendent ornaments. Villagers crowd in front of the open shops, and groups of boys stroll about to see the sights. Every one buys a collection of nuts, raisins, figs, dates, dried apricots, grape-juice paste, etc. These fruits must be of seven kinds, the name of each beginning with the letter "S." The collection is called the yeddi luvn.
Many send to their friends a plateful, with the compliments of the season. The last Wednesday, called Akhir Chahar-Shenba, is a gala day. It is the children's festival, but the whole population is ready for a frolic. Clowns in fantastic costumes and ludicrous masks, and strolling minstrels with tambourines and cymbals and leading a monkey, perform and collect shahis. Boys crowd the streets, and women gather on the housetops, to see the shows. School-boys enter into the spirit of the day and make a mock visit to their principal. One of them, arrayed like a Kurdish sheik, in long flowing robes, great turban, and a cotton beard, and with attendants armed like Kurds, but with canes for swords, presents himself and declares that a fine has been levied upon the school. He receives a present, and they all go off to expend it on some of the good things in the bazaars.
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."
In the capital the festival is ushered in and celebrated with elaborate ceremonies by the shah and his court. The crown prince in Tabriz keeps the day with similar rejoicings. At the astronomical termination of the year a tray of the seven fruits is brought before the prince. Some of these are eaten. Incense is burned, according to a custom of the fire-worshipers. One hundred and ten guns are fired off, with reference to Ali, who is said to have been named successor to Mohammed on this day. Consuls, nobles, and high officials, clothed in their uniforms and decorations, pay their salaam to His Highness, and partake of a feast. Luck-money, coined with the name of the shah, is distributed to all. Some of these gold and silver tokens are sent to the mujtehid and other ecclesiastics. They presage a fortunate year for the recipient, because the king thus indicates his royal favor. After the salaam there is a military review in the medan or public square. The trumpet is sounded; the officers on their gayly caparisoned horses present themselves with their companies. Each soldier receives a token of fourteen shahis in value. After the review, wrestling-contests and ram-fights enliven the scene. In some villages buffalo-fights are a part of the programme. These powerful animals, sometimes made ferocious by partial intoxication, make a rough contest. In other places, such as Hamadan, the day is ushered in with a display of pyrotechnics. From the housetops thousands of rockets and "fusing-jugs" are set off.
The festivities extend over two or three weeks. The bazaars are generally closed and business suspended. All are bent on pleasure. Merry-making reigns supreme. Days are designated for visiting particular classes or wards of the city. On the first day the official class exchange visits, while the religiously inclined give the honor of precedence to the mujtehids. On succeeding days the crowd moves from ward to ward. Calls are often an hour long. About breakfast-time (noon) a group of friends may unexpectedly enter, and a new supply of pilaw must be served up quickly. Families that have suffered bereavement during the preceding year do not make visits, but receive them, serving to their guests bitter coffee and omitting all sweetmeats.