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The Holiday of Nowruz: Its Origins and Practices


Nowruz, often spelled as Norooz or Nawruz, is a significant and ancient festival celebrated at the vernal equinox, marking the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

This moment usually occurs on March 20th or 21st, depending on the specific timing of the astronomical vernal equinox. Nowruz has been celebrated for over 3,000 years, originating in the Persian Empire. It is recognized as a part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, highlighting its historical and cultural significance.


Nowruz, with its themes of renewal and rebirth, resonates deeply with several festivals across Greco-Roman and Levantine mythologies, underscoring a universal appreciation for the spring season as a period of new beginnings. In the Greco-Roman world, festivals like the Roman Saturnalia and the Greek Anthesteria celebrated the end of winter and the promise of spring through rituals that symbolized fertility, growth, and the renewal of life. These festivities involved ceremonies, feasts, and communal gatherings that echoed the spirit of Nowruz with their focus on renewal, cleansing, and the optimistic anticipation of good fortune.

Similarly, in the Levantine region, ancient festivals such as the Canaanite and Phoenician New Year celebrated in the early spring emphasized themes of rejuvenation and the cyclical nature of life. These events often included agricultural rituals, offerings, and prayers for fruitful harvests and prosperity, mirroring the essence of Nowruz in their celebration of nature’s rebirth.

These cross-cultural similarities highlight a shared human tendency to mark the spring equinox as a time of transformation and hope. Whether through the cleansing of homes, the planting of new crops, or the gathering of communities, these traditions from different cultures and eras reflect a common recognition of spring’s power to bring about renewal. This interconnectedness underlines the timeless relevance of Nowruz and its celebration of life’s perpetual renewal, bridging diverse cultures through the universal themes of growth, rebirth, and the enduring cycle of the seasons.

Persian Civilization

The Persian civilization’s roots stretch far back into history, reaching as early as 4000 BCE, with evidence of sophisticated urban settlements and cultural developments long before the rise of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. This rich tapestry of Persian heritage is distinct from the Islamic Republic of Iran, a modern state established in the late 20th century, following significant political changes including a coup and the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Islamic Republic now governs the land that was once the heart of the Persian Empire, but it represents a different era and a diverse amalgam of cultures and ethnicities that inhabit this ancient land.

The ancient Persians were luminaries in a variety of fields, making landmark contributions that have left a lasting impact on the world. In sciences, they were pioneers in medicine and astronomy, laying the groundwork for future discoveries. Mathematics flourished under Persian scholars, who developed algebra and contributed significantly to the understanding of geometry. Engineering saw remarkable advancements with the creation of the qanat system, an ingenious method of irrigation that transformed arid landscapes into fertile grounds. Philosophy and ethical thought were deeply influenced by Persian thinkers, who pondered the nature of reality, the essence of good and evil, and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the most profound contributions of the Persian civilization to global culture and religious thought was Zoroastrianism. This ancient religion, predating Christianity and Islam, introduced concepts of dualism, the eternal struggle between good and evil, and the idea of a single, wise creator god. Zoroastrianism’s influence on Judaism was significant, especially during the Babylonian Exile, introducing ideas of angelology, eschatology, and messianism, which, in turn, deeply impacted the development of Christian and Islamic theology. The concepts of heaven, hell, and a final judgment, now central in these monotheistic religions, can trace their origins back to Zoroastrian beliefs. Furthermore, the themes of light versus darkness, and the emphasis on moral choice found in Zoroastrianism, have also echoed through Gnostic traditions, illustrating the broad reach of Persian religious thought.

Nowruz: An International Celebration

Nowruz is celebrated internationally, with various customs and traditions that reflect the cultural diversity of the countries and communities observing it. In its land of origin, Iran, and across countries like Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, and parts of India and Pakistan, Nowruz is celebrated with unique local practices. Common traditions include the preparation of a Haft-Seen table, which includes seven items starting with the letter ‘S’ in the Persian alphabet, each symbolizing a different hope for the new year, spring cleaning, visiting family and friends, and special meals.

Nowruz is celebrated through a variety of rich and symbolic traditions that reflect the ancient heritage and cultural values of the Persian civilization. The practices associated with Nowruz are both diverse and meaningful, aimed at promoting renewal, health, and prosperity for the coming year.

Here are some key components of how Nowruz is celebrated:

  • Haft-Seen Table: Central to Nowruz celebrations is the setting of the Haft-Seen, a special table displaying seven items that start with the letter ‘S’ in Persian. Each item symbolizes a different hope or wish for the new year, including health, prosperity, and love. Common items include Sabzeh (wheat, barley, or lentil sprouts representing rebirth), Samanu (a sweet pudding symbolizing affluence), Senjed (dried oleaster fruit for love), Seer (garlic, symbolizing medicine and health), Seeb (apple, representing beauty), Somaq (sumac berries, symbolizing the sunrise), and Serkeh (vinegar, representing age and patience).
  • Spring Cleaning (Khaneh Tekani): Before Nowruz, families traditionally clean their homes thoroughly. This spring cleaning, known as Khaneh Tekani, symbolizes the sweeping away of the old year’s bad luck and misfortunes, making room for the fresh start and good luck that the new year brings.
  • Fire Jumping (Chaharshanbe Suri): On the last Wednesday before Nowruz, people celebrate Chaharshanbe Suri, where bonfires are lit, and individuals jump over the flames. This tradition symbolizes the purification and rebirth, as participants chant, asking the fire to take away their yellow (sickness) and give them red (warmth and energy).
  • New Clothes: Wearing new clothes is another Nowruz tradition, symbolizing a fresh start and the shedding of the old year’s troubles.
  • Visiting Family and Friends (Did-o Bazdid): During Nowruz, people visit family, friends, and neighbors, often starting with the eldest family members. This practice strengthens community bonds and familial ties, promoting the values of respect and kindness.
  • Special Meals: Festive meals are an essential part of Nowruz, with families preparing and sharing traditional dishes. Sabzi Polo Mahi (herbed rice with fish) is commonly served, symbolizing prosperity and fertility.
  • Outdoor Activities: On the 13th day after Nowruz, known as Sizdah Bedar, families head outdoors to picnic and enjoy nature. This day is associated with getting rid of any bad luck that the new year might have brought. The sprouts (Sabzeh) grown for the Haft-Seen are typically thrown into running water to symbolize the casting away of misfortune and illnesses.

These practices are not only a celebration of the New Year but also an expression of the deep cultural and spiritual values that have been cherished and passed down through generations within Persian and other cultures that celebrate Nowruz.

Through these rituals, Nowruz promotes themes of renewal, community, and the cyclical nature of life, connecting those who observe it to their heritage and to each other.