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The spring equinox makes a better New Year’s Day than early January

Arezu S. and David G. celebrate Nowruz at Clarion Alley in San Francisco on Saturday, March 18, 2023. Nowruz, which means new day, marks the beginning of the Iranian New Year. The event wanted to raise awareness Iran’s ongoing revolution, and the struggles happening throughout the country. | Shelby Knowles for The Standard

Daffodils are a welcome sight this time of year, as bright signs of life emerge from months of dreary weather.

The new season also means it’s the start of a new year, known as Nowruz—meaning “new day”—to Iranians and 300 million people around the world

The Persian New Year occurs at the precise moment of the spring equinox, which this year falls on Monday at 2:24 p.m. Pacific time. As a time of rebirth and renewal, the date makes a lot more sense than the West’s arbitrary choice of early January. But make no mistake: It’s a far more involved, reenergizing and healing celebration than simply swigging champagne and flipping a calendar.

Just ask Mickey Mouse. His adorable explanation—including, but not limited to, a questionable dance demonstration—rocked the world of the Iranian diaspora last week

Nowruz—which is also spelled Norooz, Nowrooz or Norouz—is an ancient pagan holiday that, much like the Woman Life Freedom movement gripping Iran, transcends the country’s varied ethnic, regional and religious makeup in a unifying tradition. 

It’s estimated to be roughly 3,000 years old and rooted in Zoroastrianism, which predates Islam and Christianity. The Islamic Republic of Iran attempted to downplay the secular celebrations, but Nowruz's highly beloved status led to its becoming a state holiday, anyway. 

“It brings me into a global heritage or consciousness that’s connected to mother earth,” said Hafez Modirzadeh, a music professor at San Francisco State University. “It ties us to the Indigenous part of ourselves. That’s why it’s so important today.” 

That connection to Indigenous and pagan roots brings healing that BayArea4Iran organizer Yasaman Afshar feels is needed for a community processing increasingly disturbing updates coming out of the homeland since widespread protests took off in September. One day it might be another execution of protesters, the other it may be the mass poisoning of school girls who have made their rebellion against the regime crystal clear. 

“It’s hard to digest this stuff,” said Afshar, who was born in Iran. “There’s so many, this Nowruz, that are not going to be sitting around the haft seen with their families. We want to reflect on that. We want to remember them. We can’t just be angry. Nowruz is the perfect place to start that.”

The haft seen, this one in the home of Paiman Salimpour in Orinda, is a special table arrangement families display during Nowruz. | Liz Hafalia / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Here’s How To Celebrate 

Iranians anticipate the celebration in several ways. To start, an elaborate spring cleaning process, known as “khooné takoonee,” begins one month ahead of Nowruz. The goal is to rid the house of every speck of dirt and ward off the evil eye with some incense. After tossing old or ill-fitting clothes, it’s traditional to buy a brand new outfit and debut it on the first day. 

A couple days before the equinox, it’s time to plant sprouts from lentils known as “sabze,” the star of a key marker of Nowruz known as “haft seen.” It’s a beautiful spread of “seven s’s” to bring health, wealth, love, patience and other positive elements for the new year represented by items like vinegar, dried oleaster, apples, wheat germ pudding, garlic and a spice called sumac—all of which begin with the letter "s" in Farsi.

The spread is surrounded by fragrant springtime flowers like daffodils or hyacinths, a goldfish bowl, a book of poetry or other sacred texts, a mirror, decorated eggs and Iranian sweets.  

The Tuesday before Nowruz is “charshanbe soore,” which involves jumping over a fire to rid ourselves of the past year’s negativity. In a pinch, candle hops are also perfectly rejuvenating but leaping over flames is where it fully lives up to its potential. 

While doing so, chant, “Zardeeyé man az tō, sorkheeyé tō az man,” which generally means, “my yellowness (ickiness) to you, your redness (life) to me.” 

The scene is now set for Nowruz itself. Gather around your haft seen with family, count down together and read a Persian poem. Young children receive crisp dollar bills and visit elders and other family members at their haft seens. 

Bay area residents celebrate Nowruz at Clarion Alley in San Francisco on Saturday, March 18, 2023. | Shelby Knowles for The Standard

But it doesn’t end there! Keep the haft seen out for 13 days and, on the last day, have a picnic in nature with friends and family and enjoy outdoor activities and dancing. 

To celebrate with others in San Francisco, BayArea4Iran will hold a celebration with its own haft seen and live music in Clarion Alley, which currently features a mural honoring the current movement in Iran. 

San Francisco City Hall will also hold a haft seen display on Friday, March 24, from noon to 3 p.m. with Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who was born in Iran. 

“Just like in spring, right now it’s raining and things are happening and things are growing,” Afshar said. “We’re growing, and we’re all going to blossom.”

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