Norooz is the beginning of the year for the people of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Tajikistan and other common cultural heritage countries. It is also celebrated as the New Year by the people of the Iranian stock, particularly the Kurds, in the neighboring countries of Georgia, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. It begins precisely with the beginning of spring on vernal equinox, on or about March 21st. The term Norooz in writing, first appeared in Persian records in the second century AD.
Tradition takes Norooz as far back as 15,000 years--before the last ice age. The Shahnameh, dates Norooz as far back to the time of Jamshid, who in Zoroastrian texts saved mankind from a killer winter that was destined to kill every living creature. The mythical Persian King Jamshid perhaps symbolizes the transition of the Indo-Iranians from animal hunting to animal husbandry and a more settled life in human history. In the Shahnameh and Iranian mythology, he is credited with the foundation of Norooz.
Avestan and later scriptures show that Zoroaster improved, as early as 1725 B.C., the old Indo-Iranian calendar. The prevailing calendar was lunisolar. The lunar year is of 354 days. An intercalation of one month after every thirty months kept the calendar almost in line with the seasons. Zoroaster, the Founder of the Good Religion, himself an astronomer, founded an observatory and he reformed the calendar by introducing an eleven-day intercalary period to make it into a lunisolar year of 365 days, 5 hours and a fraction. Later the year was made solely a solar year with each month of thirty days. An intercalation of five days, and a further addition of one day every four years, was introduced to make the year 365 days, 5 hours, and a fraction. Still later, the calendar was further corrected to be a purely solar year of 365 days 5 hr 48 min 45.5 sec. The year began precisely with the vernal equinox every time and therefore, there was no particular need of adding one day every four years and there was no need of a leap year. This was the best and most correct calendar produced that far.
Some 12 centuries later, in 487 B.C., Darius the Great of the Achaemenid dynasty celebrated Norooz at his newly built Persepolis in Iran. A recent research shows that it was a very special occasion. On that day, the first rays of the rising sun fell on the observatory in the great hall of audience at 6:30 a.m., an event which repeats itself once every 1,400 years. It also happened to coincide with the Babylonian and Jewish New Years. It was, therefore, a highly auspicious occasion for the ancient peoples. Persepolis was the place the Achaemenid King received, on Norooz, his people from all over the vast empire. The walls of the great royal palace depict the scenes of the celebrations.
We know that the Parthians celebrated the occasion but we do not know the details. It should have, more or less, followed the Achaemenid pattern. During the Sassanid time, preparations began at least 25 days before Norooz. Twelve pillars of mud bricks, each dedicated to one month of the year, were erected in the royal court. Various vegetable seeds -- wheat, barley, lentils, beans, and others -- were sown on top of the pillars. They grew into luxurious greens by the New Year Day. The great king held his public audience and the High Priest of the empire was the first to greet him. Government officials followed next. Each person offered a gift and received a present. The audience lasted for five days, each day for the people of a certain profession. Then on the sixth day, called the Greater Norooz, the king held his special audience. He received members of the Royal family and courtiers. Also a general amnesty was declared for convicts of minor crimes. The pillars were removed on the 16th day and the festival came to a close. The occasion was celebrated, on a lower level, by all peoples throughout the empire.
Since then, the peoples of the Iranian stock, whether Zoroastrians, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Bahai, or other, have celebrated Norooz precisely at the time of vernal equinox, the first day of the first month, on or about March 21st.
Today, the ceremony has been simplified. In association with the "rebirth of nature", extensive spring-cleaning is a national tradition observed by almost every household in Iran. This is also extended to personal attire, and it is customary to buy at least one set of new clothes. On the New Year's day, families dress in their new clothes and start the twelve-day celebrations by visiting the elders of their family, then the rest of their family and finally their friends. Wheat, barley, lentils, and other vegetables seeds are soaked to grow on china plates and round earthenware vessels some ten days in advance, so that the sprouts are three to four inches in height by Norooz. A table is laid. It has a copy of the sacred book, a mirror, candles, incense burner, bowl of water with live gold fish, the plates and vessels with green sprouts, flowers, fruits, coins, bread, sugar cone, various grains, fresh vegetables, colorfully painted boiled eggs like the "Easter eggs," and above all, seven articles with their names beginning in Persian with the letter "s".
The whole table, beautifully laid, symbolizes the Message and the Messenger, light, reflection, warmth, life, love, joy, production, prosperity, and nature. It is, in fact, a very elaborate thanksgiving table for all the good, beautifully bestowed by God.
Family members, all dressed in their best, sit around the table and eagerly await the announcement of the exact time of vernal equinox over radio or television. Elders give gifts to younger members. Next the rounds of visits to neighbors, relatives, and friends begin. Each visit is reciprocated.
Celebrations are, more or less for the first two weeks, a daily routine. The festivity continues for 12 days, and on the 13th morning, the mass picnic to countryside begins. It is called sizdeh bedar, meaning "thirteen-in-the-outdoors." Cities and villages turn into ghost towns with almost all the inhabitants gone to enjoy the day in woods and mountains along stream and riversides. People sing, dance, and make merry. Girls of marriageable age tie wild grass tops into knots and make a wish that the following Norooz may find them married and carrying their bonny babies.