Photograph by Hossein Fatemi, Panos Pictures/​Redux
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Iranian-Americans dance to bring in the new year at the 2016 Nowruz Festival in downtown Chicago.

Photograph by Hossein Fatemi, Panos Pictures/​Redux
HistoryExplainer

This ancient festival is a celebration of springtime—and a brand new year

Nowruz, also known as Persian New Year, has been observed for more than 3,000 years as the victory of spring over darkness.

For the Northern Hemisphere, March 19 is the first day of spring. But for 300 million people around the world, it’s the beginning of a new year, too. Nowruz—which means “new day”—is a holiday marking the arrival of spring and the first day of the year in Iran, whose solar calendar begins with the vernal equinox.

Nowruz has been celebrated in Iran and the Persian diaspora for more than 3,000 years. Its roots are as a feast day in Zoroastrianism, a religion practiced in ancient Persia that viewed the arrival of spring as a victory over darkness. The holiday survived the Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century and the decline of Zoroastrianism’s popularity, and it spread across the globe through the diaspora of Persian people throughout history. (Here's how Persia became the world's first true empire.)

Traditionally celebrated on the vernal equinox, many begin preparations for Nowruz weeks in advance. In the leadup to the holiday, people perform ritual dances and fill vessels in their home with water, which is associated with health, in an attempt to banish bad luck.

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At Nowruz celebrations—like this one in Los Angeles, California—people jump over small fires to bring good luck in the new year.

On the last Wednesday before Nowruz, many celebrate Charshanbe Suri, a night in which they jump over fire or go to doors banging spoons to scare away bad luck. People also visit cemeteries and bring offerings for the dead, whom some believe visit before the spring rite begins.

The spring festival’s focus is fertility and new life, so it’s appropriate that many revelers celebrate with seeds and eggs. Households set up tables covered with seven symbolic items they call haft-seen. Haft means “seven” and “seen” is “s” in Farsi, and all of the items start with the letter. These include seed sprouts (usually wheat, oats and other seeds, which symbolize rebirth), senjed (also known as silverberry or Persian olive, which is thought to spark love), garlic (protection), apple (fertility), sumac (love), vinegar (patience), and samanu, a pudding made of sprouted wheat (affluence). The table also can include a Koran, eggs, mirrors, and poetry.

Though Nowruz is old, the table tradition isn’t: As A. Shapur Shahbazi notes in Encyclopedia Iranica, it only came into effect in the last century.

Nowruz has proven resilient in the modern era, too. After Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the new government attempted to suppress the festival out of fear it might detract from the state religion. But those attempts failed, and Nowruz is now celebrated as an official state holiday in Iran. (Related: This ancient Persian empire once captured a Roman emperor.)

It’s also an official holiday in Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia’s Bayan-Ölgii province, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and it’s widely celebrated in places like Turkey, Indian and other places with Persian enclaves.

In 2009, UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, listed the holiday on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, noting that it “promotes values of peace and solidarity between generations and within families as well as reconciliation and neighborliness.” March 21 is officially recognized as International Nowruz Day, though the holiday itself is celebrated between March 19 and 22, depending on calendars and vernal equinox calculations.

This year the coronavirus pandemic poses a new threat to this ancient holiday. Despite resisting national quarantines against the novel coronavirus, reports the Al-Monitor, Iranian officials have asked people not to travel during the holiday and warned against visiting elderly relatives. The holiday may embody friendliness and forgiveness, but those who celebrate it will have to learn to do so from a distance.