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Caucasus/Asia: Nowrooz Holiday Celebrates Life

By Abbas Djavadi and Bruce Pannier

Prague, 20 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Nowrooz is the new year holiday in Iran, Azerbaijan, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of India and among the Kurds. The word itself literally means "new day" in Persian, and the festival marks the beginning of the solar year and new year on the Iranian calendar, as well as among several other nationalities.

This year, Nowrooz falls on Friday March 20, with the following day, the vernal equinox, being the first day of the new year.

Nowrooz traditionally celebrates the awakening of nature, and even the triumph of good over the oppressive darkness of winter. It is a time to celebrate life at the time when life begins or is renewed for much of that which is on the earth. The new year is marked at the instant the sun leaves the astrological sign of Pisces and enters that of Aries.

This renewal of nature is the essence of this millennia-old tradition. Originally held as a spring festival, it is believed to have been first acknowledged and named "Nowrooz" by the mythical Persian emperor Jamshid. Others credit the Achaemenian dynasty of the 12th century B.C. for institutionalizing the Nowrooz festival.

The spirit and significance of the holiday has often made Nowrooz a target for foreign invaders and anti-nationalist forces throughout the history of Iran. Alexander the Great and the Arab conquerors a thousand years later tried to eliminate the holiday. The Soviet Union banned it in Central Asia and Azerbaijan, as it was considered a nationalist or Islamic holiday. The celebration was banned in Kurdish sections of Turkey, though, for the last few years, Turkish officials have allowed some festivities. Even in Iran, the birthplace of the tradition, some conservatives favored banning it just after the 1979 revolution, but public opposition was strong and the ban proved impossible to enforce.

Some of the rituals associated with the Nowrooz celebration are-the bonfire (Chahar Shanbeh Soori), held on the last Wednesday before Nowrooz. Thanks is given for the good fortune of making it through another winter. In order to purge oneself of any remaining "paleness" or evil, families puts down piles of wood and brush, igniting them shortly after sunset, and run along the fires, occasionally jumping over the flames. While this happens, family members sing to the fire to take away the "paleness" or evil and give to those singing the "redness" or health. This practice has clear links to the following of Zoroaster (seventh century B.C.) as Zoroastrians were (and still are) known for honoring fire.

Another tradition is the Seven Symbols (Haft Seen), a table upon which are placed objects which each represent a wish or theme. Seven of these objects must begin with the Farsi letter "S" (Seen). The table is usually set a couple of weeks before Nowrooz much the same way families of some Christian cultures put up a Christmas tree. The seven objects on the table, a Persian sweet (Samanu), a coin (Sekeh), green vegetables (Sabzee), a hyacinth flower (Sonbol), garlic (Seer), a dried fruit (Senjed) and vinegar (Serekh), are symbolic of truth, justice, good thoughts and deeds, prosperity, virtue, immortality and generosity. These are what Zoroaster offered to his deity, Ahura Mazda, on seven trays.

Thirteen days after Nowrooz, families will leave their homes and go outdoors to eat, play games and celebrate. This tradition, called Sezdah bedar, is intended to "dodge the bad number." The idea of avoiding the number thirteen is symbolic of the desire to avoid all evil throughout the year, and provides families with a reason to spend a carefree day together.

There is also a tradition, mainly in Iran, of cleaning everything in the house before Nowrooz, which may even play a role in the origins of the "spring cleaning" practiced by many American households.