The awakening of Mother Nature from her winter slumber brings with it not just the beginning of a new season, but the beginning of a new day. Nowruz, literally “new day,” which happens on the vernal equinox, marks a new year for several countries around the world. In 2019, it occurred on Wednesday, March 20 at 17:58:27 EST. Though the specific traditions somewhat vary from country to country, the central theme remains the same: a celebration of spring and a time for rebirth and renewal. So without further ado, let’s get into what Nowruz is all about and how it’s celebrated around the world.
Countries that celebrate.
Nowruz is also called the Persian New Year and therefore often mistaken as being an Iran-only holiday. And while it is the biggest and most important holiday in Iran, it’s also a major celebration in other parts of the world, including Central Asian and Caucasus countries and parts of the Balkans. Today, Nowruz festivities are held in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Georgia, Tajikistan, Albania, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and parts of India and Pakistan. The Kurdish populations of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria as well as the Turkic community in western China also celebrate.
Long before Christianity and Islam, Zoroastrianism was the main religion in these parts, and Nowruz is said to have been invented by the prophet Zoroaster himself. Nowruz has been celebrated for over 3 millennia, and today, the people continue to celebrate the traditions of their ancient ancestors. Fire was at the center of the Zoroastrian religion as it was believed to have purifying powers and provided warmth, light, and food. This is why despite some of the different customs across cultures, fire remains a constant throughout all Nowruz celebrations.
United Nations recognition.
In 2010, the UN General Assembly officially declared March 21 as International Day of Nowruz. This holiday has also been inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
So how is Nowruz celebrated around the world? Let’s take a tour and discover some of the most fascinating traditions.
Iranians begin their Nowruz preparation during the last month of winter by starting with a spring cleaning called khuneh tekuni, (literally, “shaking the house”). Once the home is in order, it’s time to cleanse the soul for the coming year. Enter Châhârshanbe Suri, or “Red Wednesday,” a Zoroastrian-rooted festival that occurs on the eve of the last Wednesday of the year. On this night, bonfires light up the streets, and people jump over them in a symbolic act of exchanging sickness and negativity for the fire’s health and warm, red glow.
Around Nowruz, you’ll also spot the beloved Haji Firooz, a cheerful, folkloric character with a face of soot who dons a red suit. It’s said that in the past, Zoroastrian priests sent Haji Firooz to help people burn their old belongings to make way for renewal. In the process, Haji Firooz’s face turned black from the smoke. These days, spotting him around town as he plays a tambourine or bongo signals the coming of Nowruz.
In the final prelude to Nowruz, Iranians set a traditional table spread called Haft Seen, which consists of seven plant-based items that all begin with the Persian letter “seen,” equivalent to the English “s”. These items include sabzeh (lentil and/or wheat sprouts, symbolizing growth and rebirth), seeb (apple, symbolizing beauty), senjed (oleaster, symbolizing love), samanu (wheat germ pudding, symbolizing affluence), somâgh (sumac, symbolizing patience), seer (garlic, symbolizing good health), and serkeh (vinegar, symbolizing wisdom). Other items that grace the table are painted eggs (symbolizing fertility), hyacinth, goldfish (symbolizing life), a mirror, candles, a holy book, and sweets.
All of this leads to the official arrival of spring. And on this day, Iranians enjoy the must-eat Nowruz dishes: herb rice with white fish and an herb frittata called kookoo sabzi. The two weeks that follow are devoted to family time as younger family members visit their elderly relatives first, and then the visit is returned. On the 13th and final day of Nowruz, Sizdeh Bedar, people have to spend the day outdoors lest they get bad luck. Parks and green spaces become flooded with Iranians picnicking, playing games, and eating.
The main festival in Afghanistan is Guli Surkh, or the Red Flower Festival, and occurs in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif during the first 40 days of the year when the hills and plains surrounding the city are carpeted in colorful tulips. During this festival, buzkashi tournaments are also held. This Afghan national sport is similar to polo, only a goat carcass is used in place of a ball.
For Afghans, one of the main traditions is the food. Haft Mewa (seven fruits) is a compote made with various dried fruits and nuts including red raisins, black raisins, yellow raisins, senjed (the dried oleaster fruit), pistachio, dried apricots, and dried apples. On the eve of Nowruz, locals eat sabzi challow, (spinach and rice) with rooster or white fish, to welcome spring and hope for a year of prosperous crops. Finally, samanak, a wheat germ pudding, is a labor-intensive, Nowruz staple. Women sing folk songs while making the sweet dessert, which must be stirred constantly for hours. Special cookies and other sweets are also plentiful on this day.
For the Kurdish population, Newroz is closely linked to the story of Kawa (or Kaveh) from Ferdowsi’s epic poem, Shahnameh. In the mythical tale, Kawa was a blacksmith who led a national uprising against the tyrannical rule of Zahhak after two of his sons were lost to Zahhak’s ravenous serpents. Newroz was then established to commemorate this victory. Kurdish festivities are marked by wearing traditional clothes, lighting spectacular bonfires on the eve, and dancing.
The word “Azerbaijan” itself means “the land of fire,” and Novruz in this part of the world is a week-long holiday marked by dancing, athletics, and, of course, food. The Azeri people wear their national clothes and perform the traditional yalli dance hand-in-hand around the fire. There are also street performances of men lifting weights to display the strength that they have regained upon the arrival of spring. Using a torch from the sacred Fire Temple, the central bonfire is lit, and locals jump over it while telling the fire to take and burn all their worries and difficulties.
As in other parts of the world, food is a major component in Azeri festivities. Typical Novruz dishes include an assortment of rice pilafs and kebabs, stuffed grape leaves, and sweets such as shekerbura, a half moon-shaped pastry symbolizing the flame of the fire. Wheat sprouts are tied with a red ribbon and placed on a khoncha, a tray with painted eggs, candles, sweets, and nuts.
Because Novruz is an auspicious time to receive divination, only positive words should be spoken on the chance that someone is listening. Women who overhear any talks of marriage will get married in the year to come.
Nauryz is a major public holiday throughout Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. A commonality across these countries is the making of sumalak, the thick pudding made from wheatgrass. This sweet dessert requires almost a full 24 hours to prepare, so women gather around and stir the huge pots for hours while singing folk songs. In Kyrgyzstan, boorsok (deep fried pieces of dough) and chak chak (fried dough soaked in honey syrup) are also abundant.
For Kazakhs, it’s not just the holiday that’s called Nauryz, but the entire month of March. In fact, children born during this month are often named derivations of Nauryz. Kazakhs prepare by decluttering and cleaning their homes, wearing their national costumes, and playing musical instruments. They erect yurts and place a dastarkhan, a traditional table spread, in each. Their main dish, Nauryz kozhe, is a recipe with seven essential ingredients including water, meat, salt, milk or yogurt, and grains. This dish, which symbolizes seven life virtues, is offered to guests and neighbors.
Much like Iranians, Tajiks also have a table setting with seven items beginning with the letter S. A week before Nowruz, during the flower festival of Gol Gardani, children wear colorful, traditional clothing and gather wildflowers from the mountain hills to present to their neighbors as a sign that winter has ended. In exchange, neighbors offer the children sweets and candy. This is accompanied by games, dancing, and singing folk songs. Much like Afghanistan, buzkashi competitions take place at this time in Tajikistan, as do wrestling matches and horse races.
How to say “Happy New Year.”
Wish your friends and family who celebrate a Happy New Year in Persian by saying:
سال نو مبارک (sâl-e no mobârak)
Pontia Fallahi writes and blogs about all things Iran: culture, language, and travel. She was born and raised in the US and has lived in Tehran for four years, the combination of which gives her an unbiased perspective on Iran and a unique ability to explain cultural nuances to foreigners. A teacher and lifelong learner, she delivers cultural explainers and language tips for Iranophiles.