Nowruz 2024: What is the Persian New Year and how is it celebrated?

The festival involves plenty of colour, food and other auspicious symbols that mark the start of spring

Kurdish families celebrate Nowruz in Istanbul. The festivities last around two weeks. AFP
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Festivities are under way for Nowruz, also known as the Persian New Year.

Believed to have been celebrated for more than 3,000 years, the festival is held on the spring equinox to usher in the blooming season. Around 300 million people celebrate the occasion, though the start dates can vary between countries.

It can be traced back to the ancient religion Zoroastrianism but has evolved to become a secular celebration, observed by people with Silk Road roots, including those from Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, India, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and related diaspora in other countries.

The word Nowruz is a combination of the Farsi words “now”, meaning “new”, and “ruz”, meaning “day”.

When is Nowruz?

The start of Nowruz varies in different countries because of time zones. It is marked during the vernal equinox, or the astronomical start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. This year, the festival starts on Wednesday in Iran.

Also this year, a Google Doodle has been created by Iranian artist Pendar Yousefi for the occasion. It depicts a colourful scene with animals playing instruments. It appeared on the search engine on Tuesday in several countries, including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, the UK and the US.

The celebration was added to the Unesco list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009. In 2010, the UN declared March 21 as International Nowruz Day.

“Nowruz is a celebration of new beginnings – the start of a new year, the arrival of spring, and the rebirth of nature,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his message this year. “Nowruz is also a celebration of humanity’s rich cultural heritage and diversity. And a chance for all of us to be guided by its values of peace, dialogue and solidarity.”

How is Nowruz celebrated?

Festivities typically run for two weeks, and while there are many unique traditions connected to the celebration around the world, almost all communities will mark the day with a feast and by spending time with family and friends.

People also give their homes a spring clean, buy auspicious items such as fish and flowers, and decorate their doors and windows with floral ornamentation.

Many set their tables based on the ancient Persian tradition haft-sin, where seven food items that start with “s” in Farsi are prepared, including seeb or apple, seer or garlic, serkeh or vinegar and samanu, a sweet pudding made of wheat flour.

While buying sweets and nuts is common, most people also have certain go-to dishes during Nowruz, including sabzi polo mahi, or herbed rice with fish. It is traditionally served as the first meal of the new year in Iran.

In Kurdish households, dolma or rice-stuffed vegetables, are a staple. Some popular sweets are raisin and walnut cookies, as well as nan-e nokhodchi or Persian chickpea cookies.

In more regional celebrations, people in Kyrgyzstan display traditional horsemanship to mark the arrival of the new year.

Is Nowruz a religious festival?

The holiday is a secular one for many of the communities that celebrate it but remains a holy day for Zoroastrians and people of the Baha'i faith. Greetings include “Happy Nowruz” and “Nowruz Mubarak”.