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What is Nowruz and how is the Persian New Year celebrated?


Nowruz – No-Ruz or Farsi for “new day” – is an ancient festival that celebrates the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

More than 300 million people celebrate the Persian New Year, which has been observed for over 3,000 years in various regions, including the Balkans, the Black Sea Basin, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and others.

Here’s what you need to know about the party.

What is Nowruz?

Nowruz is a festival that marks the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one and is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which usually occurs on March 21.

The celebrations last for 13 days and it is an opportunity to reflect on the past and set intentions for the future.

The festival is rooted in Zoroastrianism, a religion practiced in ancient Persia that predated Christianity and Islam.

Participants take a selfie at a festival celebrating ‘Nauryz’, an ancient holiday celebrating the vernal equinox, in Kazakhstan (Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters)

According to the United Nations Cultural Agency (UNESCO), the return of spring has great spiritual significance, as it represents the triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow.

“The Spirit of Noon, known as Rapithwina, which was believed to have been driven underground by the Spirit of Winter during the cold months, was welcomed with observances on the day of Nowruz at noon according to Zoroastrian tradition,” according to UNESCO.

The celebration is part of UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and the 2010 United Nations General Assembly declared March 21 International Nowruz Day.

Who celebrates Nowruz?

Given its origins, the festival is marked in countries with significant Persian cultural influence, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkey, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

It is also observed by minority communities in America and Europe, including in cities such as Los Angeles, Toronto and London.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks before the Haft-sin table during the Persian community's Nowruz New Year
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks before the Haft-Seen table at the Persian community’s Nowruz New Year’s event in Aurora, Ontario (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

How do people celebrate Nowruz?

The celebrations vary from country to country, but some common traditions are shared.

Some include symbolic preparations involving fire and water and ritual dances that sometimes involve jumping over fire. The flames symbolically purify the bad experiences of the previous year.

A traditional spring cleaning takes place in the houses before the start of Nowruz, while during the celebration people reunite with family and friends. Just before the arrival of the new year, families get together and exchange wishes, with the eldest handing out sweets and young children receiving coins and presents.

But one of the most important traditions is preparing the Haft-Seen table.

Iraqi Kurdish people carry torches as they celebrate Nowruz Day, a festival marking the first day of spring and the Persian New Year, in the town of Akra near Duhok
Iraqi Kurdish people carry torches as they celebrate Nowruz, a festival marking the first day of spring in the town of Akra near Duhok, KRG, Iraq (File: Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

Haft-Seen table during Nowruz

The Haft-Seen table, or the table of seven things beginning with the letter S, is a family activity.

It usually starts with spreading out a special family cloth on the table, followed by placing the seven S items. These can be:

  • Sirkeh (vinegar): Represents age and patience that often comes with getting older
  • Sikkeh (coin): For wealth and prosperity
  • Seer (garlic): For good health
  • Seeb (apples): For health and natural beauty
  • Sabzeh (wheat): For rebirth, renewal and happiness
  • Samanu (wheat pudding): A sweet dessert for wealth, fertility and the sweetness of life
  • Sumac (berries): For the sunrise and the celebration of a new day

In addition to these elements, the table can also include a mirror to symbolically represent the past year, painted eggs to represent fertility, a goldfish to represent new life, and candles to show light and happiness.

A variety of dishes are prepared during the feast, but “ash-e resteh,” or noodle soup, is usually served and is believed to symbolize the “many possibilities in one’s life,” according to research conducted by Harvard University.

Special sweets, including baklava and sugar-coated almonds, are also believed to bring good luck and are shared during the celebration. Other dishes include fish served with special rice with green herbs and spices, symbolizing nature in spring.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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