Nowruz, the Persian New Year, has not only been celebrated for decades by the tens of thousands of Iranian Americans who live in Orange County, but it is a tradition that dates back thousands of years.
The word Nowruz means “new day” and for many, the tradition is about hope, letting go of the past and preparing for new beginnings. It’s not just Iranians, many people celebrate the festivities.
What Does Nowruz Commemorate?
Nowruz, or Persian New Year, occurs on the vernal equinox, typically between March 19-21, marking the arrival of spring.
Celebrations last for 13 days. The tradition has its roots in Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion that predates both Christianity and Islam.
Last year, the annual tradition fell right around the same time the coronavirus took hold of life in the county, forcing more muted celebrations and canceling public events. Iranian Americans had to adjust their usual festivities because of the virus. This year they will have to adapt as well.
“Persian people – we are very superstitious so when we don’t celebrate Nowruz, in our mind, we think we’re going to have such a horrible year,” said Lilly Mirdamadi, a Cal State Fullerton student and Anaheim resident.
“It’s really, really important to us.”
Mirdamadi said they didn’t celebrate last year. “Honestly, it was a bad year for us. It was a really bad year for us. So this year we’re definitely going to celebrate, but just not with giant parties,” she said.
How Orange County Celebrated Persian New Year Before the Pandemic and Now
It’s not just parties.
The International Society of Children With Cancer (ISCC), a nonprofit organization, typically holds a bazaar in Orange County where it sells food and decorations people use during Nowruz.
“That would be their biggest fundraiser. They had to cancel that last year,” said Faye Hezar, a Newport Beach resident.
Hezar said that the fundraiser would be a big event with entertainment, kids dancing and poetry readings.
This year, ISCC held the bazaar at its offices in Irvine for a couple of weeks where people came with a mask and followed safety protocols to buy the items they need.
The Iranian American Community Group has been holding an annual festival in Irvine to commemorate Nowruz with live performances, games and food for 6 years – starting in 2014 – which typically draws in thousands of people from Orange County and Los Angeles. Their festival was cancelled for 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic.
The Network of Iranian American Professionals of Orange County, a nonprofit organization, typically holds a gala at a hotel in the county with live music, food and drinks.
Zahra Attarzadeh, a board member of the nonprofit, said the event that would bring in hundreds of people was canceled last year and will not be held this year because of the coronavirus.
She also said they usually hold a huge gathering at Mason Park in Irvine around two weeks after Nowruz with live music and sometimes stand up comedy as part of Sizdah Bedar.
The event was also cancelled in 2020 and won’t be held this year either.
Terms You May Not Recognize
Sizdah Bedar: Also known as Nature’s Day, Sizdah Bedar is held 13 days after Nowruz. Persians spend the day outdoors picnicking with friends and family. Green plants grown for Haft-Seen displays are returned to nature.
Chaharshanbe Suri: Celebrated before Nowruz. People dance and jump over fire hoping the flames will take away the bad from the previous year and bring about a new start.
Eid Didani: A New Year gathering.
Haft-Seen: A table display that includes items representative of people’s hopes and aspirations for the new year. Items may include traditional foods, coins, goldfish, flowers, mirrors, painted eggs and fruit.
Sumac: Persian spice.
“The health of the community is the first thing in our mind and unfortunately we had to cancel it just to make sure people are safe,” Attarzadeh said.
The Mason Park celebration has been held annually for decades.
Roxana Akbari, the legislative deputy for the city of Irvine, said a big part of the celebration is getting together as a community, which the pandemic put a stop to. This year, many Persian Americans are celebrating at home with family.
“There’s something we call Eid Didani, which is visiting loved ones and friends for the new year and going and getting either food with them or having tea and fruit and pastries. But obviously all that was canceled so we just set up our Haft-Seen table in our house,” Akbari said.
Haft-Seens, Spring Cleaning and Hope for the New Year
The Haft-Seen Akbari is referring to is a table display that holds seven items whose names start with the letter “s” in Farsi.
These items include dried fruit for love, sprouts for rebirth, garlic for health, apples for beauty, vinegar for patience, sumac for a new day and sweet pudding for wealth.
“They symbolize different things that people hope for in the New Year,” Akbari said. “That’s definitely something that I anticipate that probably everyone will still be putting up.”
Other items can include coins, goldfish, hyacinth flowers and painted eggs representing prosperity, health, fertility and the arrival of spring as well as well wishes for the new year.
Another important tradition for some Iranians is spring cleaning.
“Spring is basically the celebration of life and to start off everything new. When you start off new, you want to be fresh, you want to be clean,” Mirdamadi said. “I guess just letting go of everything and then just starting over again. That’s kind of what it means.”
Mirdamadi also partakes in Chaharshanbe Suri where some people jump over fire hoping the flames will take away the bad from the previous year and bring about a new start.
Hezar hopes for good health in the new year – something her father, who passed away recently from natural causes, drilled into her at an early age.
“If you don’t have your health, nothing else matters. So I wish a healthy year for everybody – physically, emotionally and spiritually – and then for the bigger community, bringing this COVID situation under control,” she said.
Nowruz: A Reminder of Iran
Hezar also hopes that the U.S. and Iran can resolve their conflicts peacefully and that sanctions can be lifted to ease pressure off the Iranian people.
Akbari said the pandemic has hit the people of Iran especially hard with the sanctions.
“There’s definitely been a lot of government mismanagement and similar to what’s happened in the U.S. I would say that facing a crisis like the COVID pandemic has really brought to light a lot of existing issues that were happening such as extreme economic inequities, unemployment, things like that,” she said.
“People have been left to fend for themselves.”
Attarzadeh said she came to the U.S. in 2000 and has not been able to return to Iran.
“It’s very tough but hopefully one day peace is going to be everywhere and love is going to be everywhere,” she said.
The Persian American Community in Orange County
Around 32,000 Iranian Americans lived in Orange County in 2019, according to the latest available American Community Survey data, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
These numbers are just estimates. Iranian Americans have been historically underrepresented in the census, according to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a nonprofit organization that aims to serve the interests of that community.
Attarzadeh said she thinks it is close to 50,000 but could be wrong.
Hezar, who is a partner specialist in the 2020 census, said the pandemic impacted her work. She has used Nowruz events in the past to engage people in her community about the count.
“We had to switch to relying on social media and contacting people through phone and emails,” she said. “We were counting on the whole month of March to outreach to Iranians. We missed that opportunity,” she said.
Lessons Learned in the Year of the Coronavirus
“Last year was pretty scary,” Akbari said about the pandemic taking over life in Orange County. She said she hoped for things to go back to normal. She also hopes for a greater focus on equity, justice and community.
“I think this last year, if it showed us anything, (it) is the systemic inequities that have always been here in the U.S.,” she said. “Some are more privileged than others and that definitely really showed itself in the pandemic.”
“It’s also really important to note that we’re a community and all of our actions impact each other and that’s something that I think we should keep in mind when proceeding with future crises and policymaking.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.