Celebrated on March 20, 2023, Nowruz represents the Iranian or Persian New Year, celebrated by various ethnicities worldwide, being a festival based on the Iranian Solar Hijri calendar, on the Spring Equinox, on or around March 21st on the Gregorian calendar. The Iranian word Nowruz literally means “new day”.
As the Spring Equinox, Nowruz marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, the moment at which the Sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is calculated exactly every year.
The most important thing to know about Nowruz’s origin story is that it’s rooted in Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion that predates both Christianity and Islam. Presently, while it is largely a secular holiday for most celebrants and enjoyed by people of several different faiths and backgrounds, Nowruz remains a holy day for Zoroastrians, Baha’is, and some Muslim communities.
Traditional customs of Nowruz include fire and water, ritual dances, gift exchanges, reciting poetry, symbolic objects and more, and they differ between the diverse peoples and countries that celebrate the festival. But Nowruz is less about a single day than a general celebration of being able to wipe away the dust, grime, and sadness of the old in order to start anew. It’s about the endless possibilities that come with a blank slate. As it is fitting for Persian and Zoroastrian culture, the ceremonies surrounding Nowruz center on community, family, and a deep respect for tradition.
For Iranians, Nowruz is the first day of Farvardin, the first month of the Iranian solar calendar, which is the official calendar in use in Iran, as well as Afghanistan. While Nowruz has been celebrated since the reform of the Iranian calendar in the 11th century to mark the new year, the United Nations officially recognized the “International Day of Nowruz” with the adoption of Resolution 64/253 by the United Nations General Assembly in February 2010, thus including it on its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
In addition, it has been suggested that the famous Persepolis complex, or at least the palace of Apadana and the Hundred Columns Hall, were built for the specific purpose of celebrating a feast related to Nowruz.
Apart from those mentioned above, most common holiday customs are as follows: holiday cleaning and shopping; visiting family and friends; food preparation; and gathering around the Haft-sin table.
Typically, before the arrival of Nowruz, family members gather around the Haft-sin table and await the exact moment of the March Equinox to celebrate the New Year. The number 7 and the letter S are related to the seven Amesha Sepantas (the seven divine entities of Zoroastrianism, emanating from Ahura Mazda, the highest divinity), as mentioned in the Zend-Avesta, which relate to the four elements of Fire, Earth, Air, Water, and the three life forms of Humans, Animals and Plants. In modern times, this translates into a table arranged with the most significant seven things beginning with the Persian letter “sin” which are the following: sabzeh (wheat, barley etc. sprouts grown in a dish), samanu (sweet pudding made from wheat germs), Persian olive, vinegar, apple, garlic, and sumac. The Haft-sin table may also include a mirror, candles, painted eggs, a bowl of water, a goldfish, coins, hyacinth, and traditional confectioneries. A “book of wisdom” such as the Quran, Bible, Avesta, the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, or the Divan of Hafez may also be included. The practice of Haft-sin is believed to have been popularized over the past 100 years.
In Iran, the traditional heralds of the festival of Nowruz are Amu Nowruz and Haji Firoz, who appear in the streets to celebrate the New Year. Amu Nowruz brings children gifts, much like his counterpart Santa Claus. Haji Firoz, a character with his face and hands covered in soot, clad in bright red clothes and a felt hat, is the companion of Amu Nowruz.
In Iran, the main traditional Nowruz meal consists of sabzi polo (an aromatic herb rice), mahi (fish, sometimes smoked but these days, anything goes), plus kuku sabzi, kotlet, salad shirazi, reshteh polo and plenty of fresh sabzi (fresh herbs, usually mint, basil and tarragon), paneer (feta), naan (Persian lavash flatbread), torobcheh (radishes), gerdoo (fresh walnuts) and peeyazcheh (spring onions) all arranged on a plate.
During Nowruz, people usually dress in a variety of colors such as dark green, crimson, black, and blue, depending on their culture. On the final day of celebrations, day 13, the sabzeh from the Haft-sin table is taken on an outdoor picnic near a body of water and you throw the sabzeh grass into the water to symbolize the act of “letting go” of misfortunes and going forward in good fortune. The day is devoted to feasting together on lots of different dishes with music, laughter, dancing, games, and family and friends all spending the day outdoors. It ends with one last peculiar tradition which was for unmarried girls to make a wish and tie a knot in a reed of grass in the hopes of marrying soon.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran, and Afghanistan were the only countries that officially observed the ceremonies of Nowruz. When the Caucasian and Central Asian countries gained independence from the Soviets, they also declared Nowruz as a national holiday.
Overall, the festival of Nowruz is celebrated by many groups of people in the Black Sea basin, the Balkans, the South Caucasus, Western Asia, Central and Southern Asia, and by Iranian peoples worldwide. Places where Nowruz is a public holiday include: Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan (five days), Georgia, Iran (thirteen days), Iraq, Kazakhstan (four days), Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan (four days), Turkmenistan (two days), and Uzbekistan. Nowruz is also celebrated by Kurds in Iraq and Türkiye, as well as by the Iranis, Shias and Parsis in the Indian subcontinent, in China, Pakistan, and diaspora. Moreover, Nowruz is also celebrated by Iranian communities in the Americas and in Europe.
About the author:
He is the President of the Middle East Political and Economic Institute.