Once known as Persia, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the 18th largest country in the world. The country is about the size of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Spain combined. The population is about 70 million. The country’s official language is Farsi, but almost half the population speaks another language. Most people (90%) belong to the Shia branch of the Islamic faith, but other religions are represented as well. Whatever their ethnic or religious backgrounds, most Iranians celebrate a common holiday, Norooz, the Persian New Year.

The first day of spring or the vernal equinox is barely noticed by most of us, but for the people of Iran, this day (when the sun is directly overhead at the equator) has special significance. It marks the beginning of the Persian New Year, and is the most important day in the Persian calendar.

This ancient holiday is called Norooz (sometimes spelled Norouz, Nawruz, Newroz, Nauruz, Nawroz, Noruz, Novruz, Nauroz, Navroz, Naw-Rúz, or Nevruz), and it begins sometime between March 20th and March 22nd. In Farsi, Norooz means “new day,” and most of the traditions that surround the holiday are connected with rebirth and renewal, befitting the first day of spring.

Most Persians begin to prepare for Norooz by spring cleaning their houses. Shopping is part of the preparation, and people will buy new clothes for the special day. On the night before the last Wednesday of the year, Persians celebrate Chahârshanbe Sûrî, the festival of fire. People make fires – usually in their backyards – and friends and family leap over the flames. As they do so, the tradition is to recite “Zardî-ye man az to, sorkhî-ye to az man,” which literally means “My yellowness to you; your redness to me.” Yellow is symbolic of sickness, and red symbolizes strength and health.

Persians prepare a Haft Sin table. Haft means seven, and Sin is the letter S. So the Haft Sin table includes seven items starting with the letter S in Farsi. These items are:

  • Sabzeh – lentil sprouts to symbolize rebirth
  • Samanu – a sweet pudding, a symbol of wealth and good fortune
  • Senjed – the dried fruit of the oleaster tree (Elaeagnus angustifolia) and a symbol of love
  • Sir – garlic symbolizing medicine
  • Sib – apples for health and beauty
  • Somaq – sumac, a deep red spice, which is the color of the rising Norooz sun
  • Serkeh – vinegar, a symbol of age and patience

Visitors to Iranian houses are often surprised to find that there are more than seven items on the table, and many of them don’t start with S. These other items vary a little according to region and culture, but usually include a hyacinth (sonbol), a mirror, sekkeh (coins), pastries, decorated eggs, a bowl of goldfish, a bowl of water with an orange in it, rose water, and a holy book.

Although most Iranians are Muslims, there are other religions in Iran too. So depending on your religion, the book on the Haft Sin table may be the Qur’an, the Bible, the Torah, the Avesta, the book of Zoroastrian texts, or the Kitab-i-Aqdas (the book of the Bahá’i faith). Finally, a poetry book honors the literary traditions of the Persian people.

During the twelve-day holiday, people visit friends and relatives. On the thirteenth day, everyone celebrates Sizdah bedar by leaving their houses to have a picnic in the open air. After the picnic, they take the sabzeh (the sprouting lentils) and throw them into flowing water. The idea is that the sabzeh have collected all the sickness and bad luck of the household, and it is now thrown away.

Because of the relatively large Persian-American population in the United States, Norooz is typically associated with Iran. However, the holiday is celebrated in other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia too, including Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iraq, Albania, Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.