Spring is in the air. From Japan’s cherry blossom festival to India’s bright Holi celebrations, cultures around the world have age-old rituals to usher in the season.
In Iran and several other countries, the vernal equinox marks the beginning of Nowruz, a two-week long festival that is the bedrock of ancient Persian culture.
Meaning ‘new day’ in Farsi, Nowruz marks the beginning of the year 1396 in the Persian calendar, symbolically leaving the hardships of winter behind and honoring the rebirth of nature.
Here’s what to know about the celebrations.
Nowruz is not an Islamic holiday.
The origins of Nowruz are so ancient, it predates Islam and Christianity. This approximately 3,000-year-old holiday can be traced back to Zoroastrian, one of the world’s first monotheistic religions that was once the official religion of Persia. In 2009, UNESCO inscribed Nowruz on its list of unique Intangible Cultural Heritage, recognizing the importance of preserving the social practices, rituals, and festive events.
Celebrations cross borders, religions, and cultures.
More than 300 million people around the world observe Nowruz. According to Omid Safi, director of Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, Nowruz happens “almost everywhere that Persianate culture—much broader than the modern country of Iran—has touched.” Observers fan out across the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, the Caucasus, and the United States. Each culture recognizes the holiday as one of renewal, though festivities may differ slightly from place to place.
Spring cleaning becomes spiritual.
People start preparing for the festivities weeks in advance with khaneh tekani, which literally means “shaking down the house” in Persian. Rugs are washed, walls get a fresh coat of paint, and closets are sorted, but this is much more than a deep spring cleaning. Cleanliness keeps evil away, so people can bring fresh, new energy into their new year.
Jumping over fires gets the party started.
On the last Tuesday of the year in the Persian calendar, many people participate in fire-jumping rituals, or Chaharshanbe Suri. Fire holds significant meaning in Zoroastrianism, representing God’s wisdom. Jumping over the fire is a way to rid yourself of any bad luck from the previous chapter to start the new year with a fresh slate.
Seven is the lucky number.
The “Haft-Seen" (Seven S's) is at the heart of Nowruz traditions. This tabletop arrangement displays seven symbolic objects, all beginning with the letter S in Persian. A typical spread could include sabzeh, a type of wheat, barley or lentil sprouts, to symbolize rebirth; samanu, a sweet type of pudding, representing affluence; senjed, a Persian olive, for love; seer, or garlic, for good health; seeb, or apples, which represents beauty; sumac fruit for beautiful sunrises; and serkeh, or vinegar, to promise patience.
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Goldfish (hopefully) are falling out of style.
Sometimes the haft-seen also features a poetry book, a candle with mirrors, or even a live goldfish swimming in a bowl. The goldfish, representing life, has proved to be the source of a contentious debate with activists, who argue it is unethical and results in the death of nearly five million goldfish each holiday. Last year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted a Norwuz photo of his haft-seen, but instead of a goldfish in a bowl, Rouhani placed an orange inside.
It all ends with a picnic.
On the 13th day of the new year, celebrations spill outside for Sizdah-bedar picnics, which, in Iran, means almost the entire country feasts together along nearby riverbanks. On this particular day, families often will dispose of many items from their haft-seen, like the sabzeh. Goldfish, if they had one, would be released into the waters. By letting go of the haft-seen objects, families are symbolically letting go of any wrongdoings or misfortunes that might lie ahead in the new year.