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Nuwaz
Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak: Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, is celebrated in many parts of the world, as in New York City's annual Persian Parade. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The world is atwitter over Barak Obama's "New Day" message to Iranians, in which he uses the Nowruz celebration as an occasion to turn the page on 30 years of poisoned Iranian-American relations. More on that in a subsequent post. But first, what is Nowrūz?

Meaning "New Day" in its rich and various spellings, Nowruz (accent that u for flavored pronunciation) is the big bang of Persian-Iranian and Central Asian holidays. It marks the new year as symbolized by the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring.

The holiday's exact origins are unknown as it dates back some 3,000 years to Zoroastrian tradition and Persian mythology, well before the Islamic era. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini tried to stamp out Nowruz celebrations, deeming them (because of their Zoroastrian past), un-Islamic. He failed. The holiday is too embedded in Iranian culture, too beloved and too joyful as well, to bow to the mud-stuck dourness of the ayatollahs.

In 2006, the regime attempted to douse the celebration in mourning, urging Iranians not to show joy because the holiday fell on the 40th day after the anniversary of Imam Hussein's death. Iranians ignored that call, too, suggesting that the Norwuz celebration has taken on a more political subtext than a mere whirl to tradition. "I think these days, there is a silent resistance in Iran, especially among the middle class," Hamidreza Jalaipour, a sociologist, told The New York Times that year. "They are resisting not politically, but socially and culturally."

Bonfires, hectic spring cleaning known as Khoune Takouni (which means "shaking the house"), buying and wearing new clothes and stacks of sweets, and shuttling between the houses of friends and family are all part of the Nowrūz ritual.

Though an especially Persian holiday, Nowruz was celebrated by Mesopotamia's ancient civilizations from Sumer to Babylon, from Elam to Akkad. It influenced Christianity, Judaism and Islam (each religion threads various theologies on the notions of dark, light and rebirth) and today is celebrated in Afghanistan, Turkey, Kurdistan and beyond. A March 22, 1930 article in The Times I came across by chance notes how the Persian Legation in wasghington always marked the holiday with a celebration to which the city's dignitaries were usually invited en masse. That year, however, the celebration at the legation was canceled owing to the death of His Rotundity, Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

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