TUESDAY, MARCH 20: Spring has sprung in the Middle East and Central Asia today! Following the Hindu festival of spring (Holi) and preceding the Christian celebration of new life (Easter), Iranians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians mark Nawruz today, a festival with ancient roots. (Spellings vary. Wikipedia has details.)
This New Year festival is so ancient that no one knows exactly how it started: some point to a pastoral fertility festival, while others say origins lie with the mythical King Jamshid; still others say the day was invented by Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian faith. As such, each group celebrates the day in its own fashion, and many Iranians have adopted the day as a cultural event, complete with bonfires, feasting and fireworks. Nowruz has officially been registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, celebrated for more than 3,000 years.
As a religious group, Zoroastrians have likely been marking Nawruz longest. Termed Jamshedi Noruz, this “New Day” party is the seventh obligatory feast on the Zoroastrian calendar, and dedicated to fire. The spring Noruz isn’t to be confused with the Zoroastrian New Year, however, which is marked in the middle of the Gregorian year. Through the years, Iranians—Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian—have adopted several Nawruz customs of their own, which include sprouting lentils; gathering around a table set with colored eggs, cakes and fruits; and wearing new clothes.
By the 19th century, when the Bab and Baha’u’llah inhabited Persia, Norouz was such a vital part of the culture that they simply adopted the day and altered it for Baha’is. Baha’u’llah tied Naw-Ruz with the Most Great Name of God, as this day ended the 19-Day Fast and was associated with new life. Today’s Baha’is mark Naw-Ruz with prayer meetings, music, dancing, gift-giving and feasting. (The Bab permitted musical instruments during Naw-Ruz, although he forbid their use during the rest of the year. Learn more from the Baha’i Library.) The exact date of Noruz in the Middle East varies slightly depending on the equinox, but is fixed for March 21 (beginning at sunset on March 20) for Baha’is outside of the Middle East.