Sunday opened the door to spring. In many parts of the country, the warming of the air and the smell of blossoms mark the end of winter and the arrival of a new season. For Iranian Americans, and those who constitute the more than 300 million people around the globe who celebrate Persian New Year (“Nowruz“), this time of year has special meaning.
It is literally the moment when the sun is directly above the equator, marking the vernal equinox. For those who celebrate it, Nowruz kicks off two weeks of celebrating letting go of the past and welcoming a new start.
It’s a time when houses are shaken clean in anticipation of the arrival of spring, and sweets and pastries — rich with walnuts and almonds, saffron and rose water — are baked weeks ahead. New clothes are purchased to wear at the mark of the new year, grievances are set aside, friendships are renewed. Visits of family and friends fill 13 days that culminate in an outdoor picnic (“sizdah bedar,” which literally means 13th day outside), which falls this year on April 2.
Having never lived in Iran, my early understanding of Nowruz came through my parents. As children, we had much to enjoy. Presents come from adults, usually in the form of money — brand new paper bills or gold coins. We set a table, “haft-sin,” with items representative of what’s needed in the new year. Sprouted wheat and hyacinth represent renewal; dried lotus flowers symbolize love; vinegar denotes age and patience. With these and other symbols of rebirth, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, patience and beauty, one creates the start of a new chapter.
We could sense in our parents a palpable excitement that was unique to this time of year. There was a buzz in the air that lasted the entire two weeks. Regardless of when the exact moment of Nowruz occurred, we would gather. Whether in the middle of school or at 2 a.m., we’d be summoned, however sleepy, to stand at our haft-sin, dressed in new clothes to count down. They had a cassette recording of something that sounded like the Times Square countdown, but in Persian, similarly timed to the second.
Only now do I appreciate that Nowruz is a holiday that’s not fragmented by time zones but is celebrated worldwide at precisely the same time. It’s a secular holiday that traces back several thousand years, with its origins preceding even Zoroastrianism, the ancient Iranian religion a core tenet of which is that light and goodness will triumph over darkness and evil. In the poetic telling, the Persian poet Ferdowsi describes Nowruz as the celebration for his people of rebirth and rebuilding following extended suffering. In keeping with the notion of shedding hardship and sickness, as well as honoring spirits of the dead, on the eve of the last Wednesday of the year, those celebrating Nowruz jump over small bonfires, proclaiming “Give me your beautiful red color,” and “Take back my sickly pallor!”
After two years with our lives in suspension, with collective uncertainty and trauma, we are turning a page.
Through what we missed and yearned for, we know better what we value.
Through those who helped us push through, we have a better sense of everyday heroes: the scientist or lab technician who accelerated our vaccines; the nurses who cared for society’s sickest patients; and the countless others on whom we rely, like the custodian who quietly shows up each night to clean our school buildings, pandemic or not.
And through what remains in the world to repair and solve, we may choose to rethink the fault lines that divided us and find a way around or over them.
Whether we jump over fires literally or figuratively, we can shed the cloud of sickness, and embrace health, optimism, forgiveness and healing. This year, we can celebrate together the start of a new day, with the hope this spring deserves.
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