In Iran and many other countries people welcome spring with the ancient Nowruz (new day) celebrations which coincides with the astronomical Vernal Equinox Day or the first day of spring.
According to master of Persian epic poetry Ferdowsi, Nowruz festivities date back to the time of mythological Iranian king Jamshid who saved mankind from a killer winter that was destined to kill every living creature.
Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) has it that Jamshid built a throne studded with gems and had demons raise him above the earth into the heavens where he sat on his throne like the sun shining in the sky.
The creatures of the world, who were awed by him gathered about him in wonder, scattered jewels and called the day the New Day or Nowruz.
The day was the first of Farvardin, the first month on the Persian calendar which falls on March 21.
Now people in Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan mark the Persian New Year on the same day with various types of festivities such as games, songs and dances.
For Iranians, Nowruz is a celebration of renewal and change, a time to visit relatives and friends, and pay respect to senior family members. They prepare to welcome the New Year days before by spring cleaning and buying new clothes.
The night before the last Wednesday of the year is celebrated in Iran as Chahar Shanbeh Suri or the Wednesday Festival.
The Iranian festival of fire is the reminiscence of the Suri festival held by ancient Iranians to welcome visiting spirits and angels who they believed descended before the New Year came.
Ancient Persians used to light bonfires on rooftops to inform the visiting spirits that they were ready to receive them.
Iranians now follow the tradition by holding the festival of fire as a celebration of light (the good) winning over darkness (the evil).
People make bonfires in public and jump over the flames saying ‘my yellowness is yours, your redness is mine,’ telling the fire to take their pain, sickness and give them its strength and health.
Children re-enact the visits by spirits by wrapping themselves in shrouds and running through streets banging on pots and pans with spoons, trick or treating from door to door.
The ritual is known as Ghashogh Zani (spoon beating) and symbolizes the beating out of the last unlucky Wednesday of the year.
People also serve different kinds of pastry, and Ajil-e Moshkel-Gosha (problem-solving nuts) as a symbolic way of showing gratitude for the previous year’s health and happiness.
Some break earthen jars which symbolically hold one’s bad fortune and some entertain themselves performing the ritual of Fal-Gush inferring one’s future from the conversations of those passing by.
Gereh-goshai is another ritual of the Wednesday Festival in which people make a knot in the corner of a handkerchief or garment and ask the first passerby to unravel it in order to remove ones misfortune.
After celebrating the festival of fire, Iranians start preparing the Haft Seen, a table with seven items starting with the letter ‘S,’ which is set to welcome the Persian New Year.
The items usually include Sabzeh (freshly grown greens), Samanu (sweet wheat paste), Senjed (jujube), Seeb (apple), Seer (garlic), Somagh (sumac) and Serkeh (vinegar).
Sabzeh symbolizes rebirth and prosperity, while Samanu is believed to bring strength and fertility. Some maintain that Samanu replaced Haoma, a scared herbal drink known for its healing properties.
Senjed is a symbol of love and some believe that when the tree is in full bloom, the fruit and fragrance makes people fall in love. The tree also symbolizes shelter and security.
Seeb was known as a fertility treatment in ancient Persia and is a symbol of beauty and health in many cultures.
Fresh garlic was used to ward off evil omens and Iranians put it on their Haft Seen table as a symbol of peace and serenity.
Sumac is known by some as the spice of life and its color brings to mind the color of sunrise and victory of light over darkness which ancient Persians associate with the victory of good over evil.
Serkeh is a symbol of patience and old age as it starts out as grapes and undergoes many transformations before it finally turns into a taste improver.
Apart from the main Haft Seen items, people also put the holy Qur’an tin hopes of being blessed by God in the coming year.
Ayneh (mirror), Mahi (goldfish), Tokhm-e Morgh (egg), Ajil (dried nuts and fruits), Sham’ (candle), Sekkeh (coin), Sonbol (hyacinth) and Sheer (milk) are also among the items Iranians include in their Haft Seen.
The whole table is a thanksgiving table for all the good bestowed by God, and symbolizes light, warmth, life, love, joy, production, prosperity, and nature.
During the last few weeks before Nowruz people, especially children, go on streets to see Haji Firuz who appears on the streets and alleyways with his troupe of musicians.
Haji Firuz is a black-faced character wearing bright red clothes and a felt hat who entertains people with music and dancing.
People of all ages gather around him and his troupe, and some even shower them with coins and paper money.
When the last hour of the old year is coming to an end all members of the family wear new clothes or their best outfits and sit around the Haft Seen listening to the head of the family recite the Nowruz prayers.
Once the New Year is announced, people exchange presents known as Eydi, sweets are passed around and wild rue is burned to keep the evil eye away. Families then eat a special rice dish served with fish and herbs.
The first few days of the New Year are usually spent visiting elders, relatives and friends.
Zoroastrians celebrate the birth anniversary of Prophet Zoroaster on the sixth day of Nowruz holidays which falls on March 26.
Nowruz festivities continue for 12 days and on the 13th day people attend picnics or parties in a tradition called Sizdah Bedar or ‘thirteen-in-the-outdoors.’
On this day families enjoy the final day of their New Year holidays in the woods, mountains or along streams and rivers to avoid the bad luck associated with the number thirteen.
People throw their Sabzeh, which has symbolically collected all the sickness and bad luck, into running water and young girls tie wild grass tops and wish for a happy marriage in the coming year.
Iranians believe an individual’s conduct in Nowruz will affect their lives throughout the year; therefore, they abstain from fights and disagreements to ensure a good year.
The International Day of Nowruz was registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on February 23, 2010, and the festivities are now celebrated in many countries as far as the US and Canada.
The United Nations also promotes Nowruz by holding celebrations and introducing the tradition as a representation of peace and solidarity between generations and within families as well as reconciliation and neighborliness among peoples and different communities.