Nowruz, festival that marks the Persian New Year and the beginning of spring

Nowruz is a festival with roots that go back to over 3,000 years. [Iran Cultural Council]

On Wednesday, March 20, over 300 million people worldwide celebrated Nowruz, an ancient festival that marks the Persian New Year and the official beginning of spring.

Persian New Year, or Nowruz, usually occurs on March 21 every year, with festivities continuing for fourteen days through the beginning of April. Nowruz translates to ‘new day’ in English and serves as a celebration of springtime and new beginnings for over 300 million people worldwide.

The 2024 Nowruz marks the year 1403 on the Persian calendar and rang exactly on March 20.

Celebrated at the exact moment of the spring equinox, it is a festival with roots that go back to over 3,000 years. 

It is not a coincidence that Nowruz begins at the spring equinox when the sun crosses the equator and day and night are of equal length. The Iranian calendar is a solar calendar, which means that it uses astronomical observations to determine time based on Earth's rotation around the sun. As a result, the natural phenomenon of the vernal equinox always ushers in the new year.

Nowruz is celebrated by hundreds of millions of people from ethno-linguistic groups in several countries, including Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey.

From a wider perspective, it is also observed by communities in countries as far away as Georgia, Albania, Kosovo, China, and India and even the East African coastal region by the Shirazis who refer to it as “Siku ya Noroozi” due to the effect of the Persian civilization in the East African coast.

Nowruz is much more than festivity. It is a reflection of nature’s revival and a testament to unity and harmony, deeply embedded in the Iranian psyche.

It comes with special customs that include gift exchanges, reciting poetry, symbolic objects, and more; these customs differ between the diverse peoples and countries that celebrate the festival.

Traditionally, Iranians decorate a Nowruz table known as ‘Haft Seen’, which serves as a traditional and symbolic focal point of Nowruz celebrations in Iran.

It includes seven items beginning with the sound /s/, which are symbolically set on the table. ‘Senjed’ or dried oleaster symbolizes wisdom, ‘Sabzeh’ or sprouts refers to rebirth, ‘Seeb’ or apple stands for health and beauty, ‘Samanu’ or pudding made from wheat germ is a sign of power, ‘Sir’ or garlic refers to medicine and good health, ‘Serkeh’ or vinegar symbolizes patience and finally Somac which stands for sunrise and good conquering evil.

Other items such as coins, flowers, mirrors, candle sticks, and decorated eggs are also put on the haft sin table to bring good luck, wealth, and happiness to the family.

The Holy Quran also has a special place on the table. And let’s not forget the goldfish which is a favorite, especially among children.

Nowruz festivities culminate in Sizdebedar, which falls on the 13th day of the New Year. This is a day that has to be spent outdoors.

The UN General Assembly recognized March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz in 2010, describing it as a spring festival of Iranian origin, which has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.

As mentioned by the United Nations, Nowruz “promotes values of peace and solidarity between generations and within families as well as reconciliation and neighborliness, thus contributing to cultural diversity and friendship among peoples and different communities.” 

The writer works at the Cultural Council, Embassy of Iran in Nairobi.