The holiday, dating back around 3000 years, is rooted in Zoroastrianism – an ancient Iranian religion that influenced later religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Nowruz (Norooz) is considered to be one of the largest celebrations of the year, with Iranians coming from different religions all taking part in the festivities. Nowruz is celebrated on the 21st of March which also marks the first day of the Zoroastrian Khorshidi (solar) year.
Nowruz is a time of renewal, hope and joy. As winter slowly fades away and spring starts approaches, the darkness gives way to light. The theme of renewal is a very important aspect of the customs surrounding Nowruz – including personal renewal, a renewal of friendships and a renewal of the home.
A famous decoration of Nowruz is the spread in homes which consists of seven important items beginning with the letter “s” or “seen”. Therefore it is called a haft-seen spread or table. The seven items are the following: Greenery, Wheat, barley or lentil sprouts grown in a dish (sabze); A sweet pudding made from germinated wheat (samanu); the dried fruit of the oleaster tree (senjed); Garlic (sir); Apple (sib); Sumac berries (somāq); Vinegar (serke).
In the evening of the last Tuesday of each Persian year, Iranians celebrate a fire festival with roots stemming from the ancient customs and history of the country. People light bonfires in the streets and jump over them to cleanse themselves from all the misfortunes and impurities of the past year and prepare to welcome the coming New Year.
Fire, not only in historic Persia, has always been held as sacred among Indians, Europeans and many other cultures. Ancient Persians believed in the purity and purifying power of fire. The belief was so strong that, to prove one’s innocence, people had to cross through the fire. People also put food, sweets, flowers and wine on the roof of their houses and prayed for their dead to appease them. This is the origin of the fire festival in Persia before the arrival of Islam and was held during the last five days of the year.
Sizdeh Bedar takes place on the 13th day of the Persian New Year and marks the end of the Norouz holiday. It is customary for Persians to celebrate such day by spending the day outdoors picnicking with family and friends, grilling kebab whilst listening to Iranian music and dancing. It is interesting that Sizdeh Bedar takes place on the 13th day of the New Year becuase in most cultures 13 is a representation of bad luck. Ironically, this feast represents the eradication of all that is negative and all the cheerfulness and happiness is a response to Iranian’s rejection of bad luck.
Iranians all over the world celebrate Yalda, which is one of the most ancient Persian festivals. The festival dates back to the time when a majority of Persians were followers of Zoroastrianism prior to the introduction of Islam.
On Yalda festival, Iranians celebrate the arrival of winter, the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness. Yalda eve is considered to be the longest night of the year and during this night; ancient Iranians celebrated the birth of Mithra, the goddess of light.
On this night, family members get together and stay up all night long. Dried nuts, watermelon and pomegranate are served during the night, and classic poetry and old mythologies are read aloud.
Iranians believe that those who start their winter by eating summer fruits would not fall ill during the cold season. Therefore, eating watermelons is one of the most important traditions in this night. Pomegranates, placed on top of a fruit basket, are reminders of the cycle of life–the rebirth and revival of generations.