Celebrating Norooz, the Persian New Year

A haft-sin (Photo by Fatane Rahimi on Unsplash)

This week, millions of people around the world, particularly in Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and across ethnic groups in Western, Central, and South Asia, will celebrate Norooz or the Persian New Year!

The word “Norooz” translates literally to “new day” in Farsi, and the holiday marks both the beginning of spring and the start of the new year in the Solar Hijri calendar, a calendar based on earth’s movements around the sun. Norooz corresponds with and is celebrated at the exact moment of the vernal or spring equinox. It is celebrated with music, dancing, an abundance of sweets and food, and gatherings with loved ones.

Norooz has been celebrated across Asia for over 3,000 years and comes from the robust traditions and cultures of the ancient Iranian peoples. While originally a holiday associated with the ancient Zoroastrian religion that once dominated Iran, over the millennia Norooz has evolved into a largely secular holiday where people of all faiths and no faiths joyfully participate across the Iranic world.

While Norooz is a time of renewal, joy, and hope, it is also a time for reflecting on the past year, leaving negativity behind, and setting goals for the year ahead. Although the holiday is typically one marked by joy, I would be remiss not to mention the many prisoners of conscience behind prison walls in Iran who cannot gather with their families as we have all done for generations, including but in no ways limited to: Saman Yasin, Fatemeh Sepehri, Sepideh Qolian, Vahid Afkari, Toomaj Salehi, Sepideh Rashnu, and Farideh Moradkhani, who is the niece of the current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ali Khamenei.

Norooz and the associated new year festivities typically last for about two weeks and involve various customs, such as thoroughly cleaning the home, gathering with and visiting family and friends, preparing special foods (a staple is “sabzi polo ba mahi,” an herbed rice dish served traditionally with fish), congregating with community, spending time in nature, and setting up a haft-sin, an intricate tabletop arrangement that is themed around seven symbolic items that start with the letter “S” in Farsi.

Some of the items typically included in the haft-sin are:

Sabzeh (lentil or wheat sprouts) – symbolizing rebirth and renewal
Sekkeh (gold coins) – symbolizing abundance and prosperity
Senjed (dried oleaster fruit) – symbolizing love
Seer (garlic) – symbolizing medicine and good health
Sib (apple) – symbolizing beauty and health
Somaq (sumac) – symbolizing the sunrise
Serkeh (vinegar) – symbolizing patience, age, and wisdom

Additionally, people who celebrate Norooz will typically place a book of wisdom at the center of their haft-sin display. Traditionally, Iranians opt to display books of poetry by beloved poets such as Hafez, Sa’adi, and Rumi, while others may choose to place a religious text or book that speaks to their political views.

Norooz celebrations typically begin with Chaharshanbe Suri (or Red Wednesday), an ancient Iranian fire festival that is celebrated on the eve of the last Wednesday of the year, and continue with the Norooz holiday. They formally end thirteen days later with Sizdeh Bedar, a community-based celebration where families come together for communal picnics, singing, and dancing within nature.

The beauty of Norooz is that it is one of the few holidays that brings unity among a diaspora and encourages new generations to want to continue in the traditions. This, in part, is because there is no overtly religious influence in the celebration which means that all people can comfortably celebrate without leaving their personal faith beliefs at the door. In a time of bitter division in our world, Norooz brings our diaspora unity and a much-needed reminder of the resilience and importance of our people, our customs, and our traditions.

May this new year bring us a fresh start, a brighter outlook, and one step closer to freedom and liberation for all.

Norooz mobarak to all who celebrate!