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Persian New Year Transcends Religions, Regimes

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 17, 2005
 
The arrival of the spring equinox on Sunday will cue Persians to party. Far from a gardening rite, the equilibrium of day and night marks the start of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

The holiday is the most revered celebration in the greater Persian world. (In ancient times, Persia included the countries of Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and portions of western China and northern Iraq.)

"[Nowruz] is a celebration of the renewal of nature after the slumber of winter, so to speak, and along with it the human response to that awakening of the Earth," said Mahnaz Afkhami, director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies in Bethesda, Maryland.

The Persian New Year has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years. Its roots stretch back to Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest religions. While Nowruz customs and traditions have evolved with time, the spirit of Nowruz remains the same, Afkhami said.

David Rahni, a professor at Pace University, helps organize the Persian Iranian Parade in New York City. Now in its second year, the parade, which will be held this Sunday, celebrates the contributions of Iranian Americans.

Rahni said Nowruz is the common thread uniting religions and nationalities in the Persian world and beyond. "If there's one major annual celebration that is universally commemorated by them all, it is indeed Nowruz," he said.

Jumping Fire

For Persians around the world, Nowruz celebrations began on Tuesday night marking what's known as Wednesday Eve (think Christmas and Christmas Eve). They will continue until April 1, the 13th day of spring.

On the last Tuesday night of the old year, Persians typically gather around bonfires to celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Suri, a celebratory ritual of the quest for enlightenment, health, and happiness in the year ahead. Celebrants jump over fires as they chant the Persian phrase, "Give me your beautiful red color/Take back my sickly pallor."

"This ritual is supposed to clean the body of illness, bad feelings, or unhealthy things that might be in the body—getting rid of that and picking up the warmth, the glow, of the fire," Afkhami, the Foundation for Iranian Studies director, said.

On the first day of spring, Nowruz day, families gather around a table set with the Haft seen arrangement of seven items. Each item begins with the letter s in Persian and symbolizes the hoped for happiness, abundance, and health in the New Year.

For example, there is an apple, the Persian word for which is seeb. The fruit symbolizes health and robustness. Garlic (seer) is said to ward off evil and illness. Sprouts of wheat (samanoo) symbolize good crops of growth and plenty, Afkhami said.

The celebration continues for 13 days with gatherings of relatives and friends to renew friendships, bury grievances, and exchange gifts and wishes. It is common for Persians to take time off from work and school.

On the 13th, and final, day people head outdoors and into the countryside for a picnic. It is a final time to toss out the old and ring in the new. This is symbolized by the tossing into a stream the wheat that had been growing on the Haft seen table since before the new year.

It is also customary for young women to tie green shoots together to symbolize their hope for marriage in the coming year. "You tie a knot that symbolizes the tying of your destiny with the destiny of another person," Afkhami said.

Tolerated Holiday

When the theocratic government of Iran came to power in 1979, Nowruz was banned. The government wanted to recognize only Islamic holidays and considered Nowruz a pagan celebration, Afkhami said.

"But the people wouldn't have any of it," she said. "It's the most popular holiday in Iran, and people continued to celebrate it anyway. Then, finally, the government let go and lifted the ban."

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