In the centuries since industrialization began in the East and took off on a grand scale in the West, human societies have been forced to change their views of, and relationship with, the natural world. The consensus of most historians is that the industrial revolution solved many problems, but also created new ones. We can thank the shift into mass production for our smart phones and vehicles, as well as a redefinition of gender identities, but it’s also responsible for our separated extended families, high rates of pollution, and chronic food-related disease.
Being so far removed from the industrial revolution generationally means that I don’t often question the impacts of such a huge societal shift on my current life. I have never lived on a farm, or worked in a factory. I have never known a community free of the evidence of industry. But there are some traditions that have withstood the shift and can reconnect me to the pre-industrial world.
I was raised to appreciate nature, through camping trips, hikes and the like. But the mainstream holidays I celebrated in my youth seemed to have had nature systematically removed. Christmas involved a tree, but the focus seemed to be on Santa and the presents. Easter included rabbits and eggs, but I recall baskets of candy more clearly. This shift makes sense: holidays that once depended on nature to supply the festivities with special seasonal treats have been freed through industry to be defined through a number of new consumables. The traditions of ancient societies, like the winter solstice celebration of the Celts (which began the traditions of the tree, candles, Yule log, and mistletoe that we now associate with Christmas) and the Zoroastrian celebration of spring (which incorporated the fertility symbolism of eggs, grass, and birds) have been adapted to a very different world. (There is, of course, a huge religious aspect to these ‘adaptations’. Much of that history is troubling and requires a more in-depth discussion than I can provide in this post.)
I have fully embraced our modern industrial world in most ways, but given my experience with poor health caused by industrial food, I also greatly appreciate the simplicity of centuries past. My Celtic heritage sparked my interest in winter solstice traditions when I was a teenager, and in my recent life I’ve been fortunate to learn about the Nowruz celebration of spring through my partner and his Persian family. Nowruz is a Middle Eastern holiday that predates Islam and is one of the few expressions of the ancient Persian culture that persists in the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowruz originated as a part of Zoroastrianism, a religion dating back to 500 B.C.E in ancient Persia. The followers of Zoroaster believe in equality of all humans, and a respect and reverence for nature. Nowruz is the New Year celebration on the first day of spring and is full of nature symbolism, displayed in a sofreh haft sin, a spread or altar incorporating seven items that begin with an “s” sound. The traditional meal served on Nowruz, sabzi polow va mahi, (herbed rice and fish) is delicious and extremely healthful (I will post pics and recipe soon). This is a holiday worth trying! UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has even stated that Nowruz should be recognized and shared as a celebration that inspires better stewardship of our environment as an international community. (See UN press release at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2013/sgsm14884.doc.htm )
One aspect of the shift from pre-industrial to industrial life that has become quite apparent to me as I’ve been prepping for Nowruz is the changed focus of family life. Industrialization has allowed our society to produce so much more stuff, but all that production takes a lot of work. And at some point along the way, we have to ask ourselves, what are we working for? When we have the opportunity to spend time with our loved ones, enjoying great food, beauty, and connection with our ancestors and nature, it’s easy to answer that question. Showing my children that the real purpose of our lives lies in our enjoyment of each other and of the bounty of our planet is the best gift that I can give them at this new beginning, in this new season of life and creation. Happy New Year to us all! Eid-e Shoma Mobarak!
Ancient Persian festivities incorporate fire in many different ways, and candles and mirrors are a part of the haft sin and wedding sofreh.
Many elements of nature such as eggs, fruit, and grass are a part of the spread, including sir (garlic).
The beautiful hyacinth or sonbol fills the air with such an amazing fragrance! And I love all of the cooking ingredients displayed, such as sumac powder, vinegar, and of course the garlic. Everyone eats food at a holiday party, but this is a whole different way to honor it!