Today, March 20, kicks off a major celebration in honour of spring and the new year. In Middle Eastern and Central Asian communities, the vernal equinox ushers in Nowruz, a celebration of nature's rebirth that lasts for two weeks.
As is the case with most holidays founded around seasonal shifts, Nowruz (which you may see spelled as Noruz or Norooz) dates way, way back in history. It's believed to have started in Iran, which is why it's also known as the Iranian New Year or Persian New Year. According to Solmaz Sharif of the New York Persian Cultural Center (NYPCC), the holiday predates Islam, but can be traced to Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion founded in Iran about 3,500 years ago.
Sharif says that, today, Nowruz is celebrated across cultures, religions, and national borders in countries including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and, of course, Iran. "Nowruz is one of the few things that is able to bring all Persians together, uniting them," she says.
Families spend the weeks leading up to Nowruz cleaning their homes and repairing any fixtures or furniture, in a process known in Farsi as khaneh takani (or "shaking the house"). Sharif says that many take this expression literally, and she describes the kind of cleaning that goes on as "deep cleaning."
People spend the last Wednesday before Nowruz addressing their spiritual cleanliness, jumping over fire pits, and reciting a variation of the following rhyme: "Give me your beautiful red colour; And take back my sickly pallor." Sharif tells us this is a gesture of purification ahead of the new year.
In the final days leading up to Nowruz, people prepare the Haft-Seen table, which is set with seven items that are symbolic of the time of year. According to Harvard's Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, these items are supposed to represent what people hope to bring into the new year: lentil sprouts for rebirth (sabzeh), sweet pudding for abundance and fertility (samanu), vinegar for wisdom and patience (serkeh), garlic for health (seer), dried fruit for love (senjed), apple for beauty (seeb), and sumac berries to allude to the colors of dawn (somaq). As Sharif explains, the Farsi word "Norwuz" translates to "new day."
After the first day of Nowruz, people spend the next two weeks visiting family members, starting with the eldest, Sharif says. The final ritual of Nowruz takes place on the 13th day of the new year, when people spend the day picnicking outside with their family — after that, Sharif says, it's "back to normal life."
In her work with the NYPCC, Sharif sees New Yorkers finding smaller ways to celebrate, too, from cleaning their apartments to wearing new outfits on the first day of spring. And that's what makes Nowruz such an enduring holiday, she says: "These are small, but meaningful, things...[that show that] people really want it to continue."