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Nowruz for beginners

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Today is Persian New Year – or Nowruz. While the weather outside may not reflect it (just yet) – Nowruz is meant to symbolize the coming of Spring, and marks the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar.

Given that there are an estimated 121,510 Persians living in Canada, with close to 50,000 living in the GTA, there are a great number of employees celebrating Nowruz today. These numbers are on the rise, as more and more Persians immigrate to Canada to live and work

For this reason, we thought it would be a good idea to provide employers with a snapshot of some of Nowruz’s key traditions and practices.

Preparations for Nowruz begin early for Persians, with families embarking on a “spring cleaning” of the home; and the purchase of new clothes and flowers to mark the new season ahead.

  • Chaharshanbe Suri (Festival of Fire): The Festival of Fire is celebrated the night before the last Wednesday of the year, and symbolizes the light (the good) winning over darkness (the bad). The Festival includes people going outside at night (dark) to make bonfires (light), and jumping over them. The fire is believed to burn out all the fear in a person’s spirit as they embark on the new year.  In Canada, the Festival has taken place by special permission and permit at public spaces including Mel Lastman Square in North York, Ontario.

Employers are not expected to build bonfires for their employees, and are cautioned against this potential violation of occupational health and safety.

  • Nowruz Day: Nowruz itself is celebrated on the day of the astronomical Northward equinox, which is usually on March 21 or the previous/following day depending on the time zone. On Nowruz, families gather around the “Haft-Seen” table (which some employers have now begun setting up at the office, much like the Christmas tree or Menorah). The Haft-Seen is a traditional table setting which includes the following seven items starting with the letter “S” (“seen”) in the Persian alphabet, all of which symbolize an element of a balanced life for the coming year:
  • sabzeh – wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish – symbolizing rebirth
  • samanu – a sweet pudding made from germinated wheat – symbolizing affluence
  • senjed – the dried fruit of the oleaster tree – symbolizing love
  • sīr – garlic – symbolizing medicine
  • sīb – apples – symbolizing beauty and health
  • somaq – sumac berries – symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
  • serkeh – vinegar – symbolizing age and patience.

On the day of Nowruz, and in the proceeding 12 days, Persians visit with family and friends to wish each other a happy and prosperous new year. The visits usually happen in the order of age, with the elders of the group being visited first.

  • Sizdah Bedar (“Passing the thirteenth day”):  Meant as a day to pass the bad luck of the 13th day, Sizdah Bedar marks the end of the Nowruz celebrations. Nowruz lasts 12 days and on the 13th day, family and friends avoid the bad luck of the number 13 by going outdoors, and having picnics and parties. On this day, the grown Sabzeh (grown wheat/barley/lentil sprouts from the Haft-Seen table), which has now symbolically collected sickness and bad luck, is thrown into running water to distance the home from sickness and welcome health for the new year ahead.

There are many more traditions during the Nowruz holiday, which may lead employees to be absent or require accommodation. Do employers have any obligations to accommodate employees celebrating the Persian New Year?

The short answer is no.

It is important to note that Nowruz is a secular holiday and is celebrated by various faiths, and as such is not grounded in any particular religion. For this reason, religious accommodation is often not at play. This can also alleviate some concern over wishing a colleague a happy new year on Nowruz (although it is best to ask if they celebrate it before wishing them well). The customary greeting on Nowruz day is: “Nowruz (pronounced: No-rooz) Mobarak (Mo-Bah-RAK) OR “Saale-No-Mobarak” (which means happy new year).

Nowruz is not a Public or Statutory Holiday in Ontario or in Canada, and there is no technical requirement to provide a day off for employees in or around March 21 of each year. However, the Canadian Parliament, by unanimous consent, did pass a bill on March 30, 2009 to add Nowruz to the national calendar of Canada, recognizing the importance of this holiday for many Canadians.

For this reason, while there is no technical requirement to accommodate the holiday – unless you provide such accommodation for other ethnic groups in which case a potential Human Rights claim may be made – allowing employees who celebrate Nowruz to do so through the use of personal leave days; vacation days; or work-from-home arrangements can be a great morale boost on which to start the new season.

Nowruz Mobarak!

Parisa Nikfarjam