There are several holidays in the world that since the ancient time have been common for people of whole continents. An example is the celebration of a new year, but not the one we now have on January 1, but the one that in Russia was celebrated on September 14, after harvest. Related to it is “mehrgon,” i.e. celebration of the harvest, which Middle Eastern people celebrated at approximately the same time.
The holiday of the vernal equinox, Nowruz, falls in the same category. It is celebrated by people in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Northern India, Turkey, and also by Tartars and Bashkirs in Russia. Its spelling and pronunciation may be different in different countries – Novruz, Navruz, Nuruz, Nevruz, Nauryz, Nooruz, but everywhere it symbolizes the revival of the nature and man, the rejuvenation of souls and the beginning of a new life.
The holiday emerged in ancient Iran and is linked to the cult of the Sun and the name of the legendary prophet Zarathustra. The Iranian and Tajik legends narrate that many exceptional events took place on this day, “Zarathustra was chosen by God to bring people happiness,” the mythological king Tahmuras “sent evil demons and ruthless people to prison,” while “Goshtasb, Princess Katayoun and Jomosb took on the religion of Mazdayasna,” i.e. Zoroastrianism. The emergence of Nowvruz is also linked to the mythological king Jamshid, who was touched by sun rays on that day.
The oldest source mentioning celebration of Nowruz is Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism. According to Avesta’s teaching, every spring people should celebrate the emergence of life on the earth, which appeared in “six kinds” (sky, water, earth, plants, animals and humans).
Celebration of Nowruz at the spring equinox is related to the emergence of the sun calendar in Central Asia and Iran seven thousand years ago, long before Islam. According to the calendar, a year began in spring, on March 20 or 21, the day of the vernal equinox, when the day and night became equal and the spring really began. It marked the start of a new season of fieldwork, time of worries and hopes for farmers. This way, Nowruz is different from the Muslim New Year, since the Muslim calendar is based on the annual lunar cycle and specific historical events.
In some countries, including Tajikistan, Nowruz is a public holiday and March 21 is a non-working day.
The importance of this time of the year for people’s lives in ancient times gave rise to numerous rituals and traditions related to magic, the cult of nature and fertility, beliefs in dying and rising nature.
Two weeks before the holiday, wheat or lentils are sown on large dishes. On Nowruz, the green sprouts are used to decorate the table, symbolizing new life and a new year. Ahead of Nowruz, one should reconcile with enemies and forgive debts.
Celebration of the New Year is preceded by symbolical cleansing rituals, stemming from Zoroastrianism. On the “Wednesday of joy” (last Wednesday before Nowruz), fires are made in the streets of towns and villages, and everyone should leap over one fire seven times or once over seven fires. On the last day of the old year, people sprinkle each other with water and jump over water streams to clean themselves of last year’s sins.
The celebration is not limited to a generous feast. Children go from house to house signing songs about Nowruz and receiving sweet treats. In the streets, there are artists performing, wits competing, songs and jokes are heard everywhere. The celebrations last till late at night, and next morning are continued with one’s family, even if on a smaller scale.
In September 2009, UNESCO included Nowruz in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and at the end of February 2010, the 64th session of the UN General Assembly declared March 21 the International Day of Nowruz.