Equinox / Ostara / Naw Ruz / Norouz: World cultures welcome spring

Pink flowers budding on a tree

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, MARCH 20: Soak up the sunshine and welcome warmer weather—spring has sprung in the Northern Hemisphere!

Whether it’s called Vernal Equinox by scientists, Ostara by Pagans and Wiccans, Naw Ruz by Baha’is or Norouz by Persians and Zoroastrians, one thing is true across the board: The world’s experiencing a fresh start. For Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Persians, today marks the first day of the New Year—after all, the translation of Norouz is “new day.” In several Middle Eastern countries, such as Afghanistan, Albania, Kosovo, Iraq and Kazakhstan, an official, fixed Norouz holiday is celebrated each year near the equinox. (Wikipedia has details.)

VERNAL EQUINOX:
A CELESTIAL PHENOMENON

Historical records indicate that even ancient societies followed the celestial patterns of the sun and stars, especially events like the equinoxes—when day and night are approximately equal in length. From the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), the vernal equinox appears each year around March 20 and is the result of the plane of the Earth’s equator passing the center of the Sun. The tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor toward the Sun, and the Sun is at one of two opposite points on the celestial sphere. (Wikipedia has details.) Estimates are that while the March equinox currently passes into Pisces, it will pass into Aquarius in 2597 CE. Equinoxes can occur on any planet with a substantial tilt to its rotational axis.

Curious to view the stars near the vernal equinox? Gazers in Portland, Oregon, can attend the “star party” at either the Rooster Rock or L.L. Stub Stewar State Parks (more details here). Whether there is a star party in your community or not, learn more about celestial events to look out for this month with help from this resource, which mentions the Zodiacal Light, polar ice cap and equinox, just to name a few.

OSTARA:
A PAGAN AND WICCAN CELEBRATION
OF EARTH’S SPRINGTIME

Woods in the springtim with a creek, new greenery

Photo by Vilseskogen, courtesy of Flickr

Embrace nature’s springtime beauty on the Pagan and Wiccan holiday of Ostara. Originally centered around an ancient Germanic pagan goddess, Eostre, most adherents now celebrate Ostara with feasts of springtime foods, walks in nature and the planting of seeds or a garden. (Learn more at Wicca.com.) As weather continues to get warmer, Wiccans welcome fertility; the Sun God and Maiden Goddess mark a sacred marriage, which will create a Mother Goddess in nine months.

Eggs and rabbits represent the fertility of springtime, and meditations of this time are directed toward the earth. Feasts are also common for Ostara, and springtime foods like sprouts, leafy green vegetables, dairy and seeds grace the table. Activities and craft suggestions—like naturally colored Ostara eggs and a miniature greenhouse—along with tips for setting up an Ostara altar, can be found at About.com. Ideas for eggs, springtime treats and more are on Pinterest.

NAW-RUZ:
A BAHA’I NEW YEAR’S
‘DAY OF THE MOST GREAT NAME OF GOD’

One of nine holy days of the year, Naw-Ruz starts a new calendar with a festive atmosphere. When the Bab—the forerunner to the founder of the Baha’i faith—adopted the Persian Norouz as a holy day, he correlated it with the Most Great Name of God. He drew up a new calendar of 19 months of 19 days each, and renamed Norouz as the Baha’i Naw Ruz, calling it “the day of God.” Later, Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, instituted a festival for Naw-Ruz that would reward those who had observed a fast for the past month (the Nineteen Day Fast). Years following, Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha, would describe Naw-Ruz and the equinox as a symbol of the Manifestations of God; just as the Manifestations brought a “spiritual springtime” in their messages, so, to, does equinox bring new life to earth. (Reflect with help from the New York Baha’i.)

Work is suspended on Naw-Ruz, and prayers and music are common in gatherings. The month of fasting has ended, and most devotees partake in a large feast with family and friends. Currently, Naw-Ruz is fixed on March 21 for Baha’is outside of the Middle East. (Note: Since Baha’i days begin at sunset, Naw-Ruz kicks off at sundown on March 20.)

NOROUZ:
A PERSIAN AND ZOROASTRIAN HOLIDAY
STEEPED IN LEGEND

Formal table in a dimly lit room, with a mirror, lit candles, sprouts, apples and other Haft Sin items on top

Items on a Haft-Sin table in Tehran. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Having qualified for the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Norouz (spellings vary) has been a part of Iranian history for at least 3,000 years. Some believe that Norouz originated with Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), who received his revelation from God on that day; others attest that the festival stems from even earlier celebrations. Zoroastians date Norouz to the mythical king Jamshid who, tradition says, saved mankind. Following his feat, the world’s creatures admired him en masse, and this wondrous day was called Norouz. Today, Norouz is a 13-day holiday that resonates across Iran, the Zoroastrian faith and much of the Middle East and Central Asia. (Learn more from Zoroastrian.org.)

Weeks of preparation give way to the extensive Norouz holiday: cleaning and decorating the home, purchasing new garments and gathering materials are carried out with pride. A central element of Norouz is the Haft Sin table—which varies slightly in various regions and cultures—and is meticulously prepared. Seven items are placed on the Haft Sin table: sazbeh (wheat or lentil sprouts); samanu (creamy pudding made from germinated wheat); seeb (apple); senjid (dried fruit); sir (garlic); somagh (sumac berries, or fruit the color of the sun); and serkeh (vinegar). Zoroastrians also may place a picture of Zarathustra, candles, incense and a mirror on the table.

From the first day of Norouz events, celebrants exchange visits with family members and friends. The visits, dancing and singing continue for 12 days, until Sizdeh-be-Dar. On “thirteen-in-the-outdoors,” everyone heads outside for picnics in the fields and hikes through the woods. (Learn more from Iran Chamber Society.) Ancient Persian belief is that the 12 constellations of the Zodiac controlled the months of the year, with each ruling the earth for 1,000 years; at the end of the Zodiac reign, the earth will break down from the pandemonium. The 13th day of Norouz represents the time of chaos, and society’s structure is put aside for a day while everyone, young and old, plays outside.

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