Every year, on the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, Nowruz is celebrated by millions of people across the globe. It marks the first day of the first month of the Iranian calendar, which usually occurs on the 21st day of March.
For most Iranians, Nowruz is the most important celebration of the year; it is an ancient festivity which has been celebrated for about 3000 years. But for many, Nowruz is more than just an annual festivity–it is one of the most powerful sources of Iranian national identity today, defining the “soul” of Iran. In pre-Islamic Persia, there were many other annual celebrations, but none survived the dramatic shifts of the last 1400 years. And although in recent years other pre-Islamic celebrations such as Mehragan have experienced a major revival, Nowruz remains the most important national festival of modern Iran. In the early stages of the Islamic Republic, following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, some hard-liners took measures to undermine this pre-Islamic celebration, but did not succeed.
Nowruz is rooted in Zoroastrianism, which was the main religion in ancient Persia, but today, apart from the remaining Zoroastrian community, people who celebrate Nowruz regard it as a secular holiday; it is celebrated by people from various religious, ethnic and social backgrounds. Its non-religious and inclusive nature has likely made it even more popular than before. For Iranians, Nowruz is like the combination of Christmas and New Year at once, and similar to the celebration of Christmas in the west, Nowruz has a social function. During the Nowruz festivities, which lasts for about two weeks, people are supposed to visit each other and the elders give presents to the younger ones. Traditionally, every visit should be reciprocated during the two weeks of festivities. In this social function, the age hierarchy matters; at the beginning of the festival, the younger members of the family visit the older ones and then later on the older relatives will visit their younger ones. This is a particularly happy time for the kids because in addition to getting two weeks off from school, anytime they visit relatives they also receive aydi (a gift, often monetary).
Since Nowruz marks the beginning of the new year in the Iranian calendar, people start to prepare for the celebrations some weeks in advance. “Spring cleaning” is a very important ritual to prepare for both Nowruz and the new year. In addition to intensive spring cleaning, people traditionally mark the occasion by buying new outfits and, if they can afford it, redecorating the house. Should a house need redecoration or refurbishments, the owners will go the extra mile to get everything done before the celebration of Nowruz when the house will be busy with visitors.
But before the official arrival of the spring, there is Chahr Shanbe Soori, or the Festival of Fire; on the night of the last Wednesday before Nowruz, bonfires are lit and people young and old jump over the flames in a symbolic act meant to “burn away” sickness and bad luck, symbolizing hope for enlightenment and happiness throughout the coming year. People jump over the flames shouting: Sorkhi-e to az man (give me your beautiful red colour), Zardi-e man az to (and take back my sickly pallor)!
Another tradition during the Chahar Shanbeh Soori festival is the Iranian version of Trick-or-Treating, which is similar to the western Halloween night. Young children hide under a traditional Chador (veil) and go from door to door banging a spoon against a metal bowl, asking for treats.
During Nowruz, the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is precisely calculated every year and the entire family comes together to observe the exact moment of the turnover. There are some important traditions which people observe during this time: Iranians will display a special table or cloth called the Haftseen, which means ‘seven Ss’. On the Haftseen, there are seven symbolic objects, all of which begin with the ‘s’ sound in Persian and represent something unique. For example, a hyacinth represents spring; coins represent prosperity; the sweet dry fruit of the lotus tree represents love; apples represent health and beauty; sprouted wheat grass represents rebirth and the renewal of nature; a sweet pudding made from wheat represent the sweetness of life; and a bright red spice made from crushed berries represent sunrise and the spice of life.
The end of celebrations is marked by Sizdah-Bedar, which is celebrated on the thirteenth day of the new year. This is the day of nature, so Iranians typically spend the day outdoors. In Persian, Sizdah means “thirteen” and bedar means to “get rid of,” so it literarily means “getting rid of thirteen.”
One of the most notable traditions at the end of this national picnic day is to throw away the sprouted wheat grass Sabzeh from the Haftseen table. Symbolically, the sabzeh is supposed to have collected all the pain and ill fate hiding in the path of the family throughout the upcoming year. According to tradition, touching someone else’s sabzeh on this day or bringing it home is considered a bad omen.
Another tradition on the 13th is the knotting of blades of grass by unmarried girls in the hope of finding a companion. The knotting of the grass represents love and the bond between a man and a woman.
In addition to this ancient Persian festival’s importance in modern Iran, Nowruz is celebrated by millions of non-Iranians as well; particularly in cultures which had some historical proximity to Iran. For example, communities in Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan celebrate Nowruz. Nowruz is also considered as the most important Kurdish national celebration across the world, as the Kurds share a long history with the Persians and they both share some cultural and linguistic features. In Turkey, following the establishment of the Turkish Republic, Nowruz has been politicized as one of the embodiments of Kurdish identity in the country. Finally, in a demonstration of the wide reach of Nowruz celebrations and at the initiative of several countries that share this holiday, International Nowruz Day was declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010.