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A rite of spring

Local Iranian community celebrates ancient traditions of Norooz

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Last Friday, Persian New Year came to Palo Alto.

Called Norooz ("New Day,"), it is a time for purifying the home, making amends, sweeping away burdens and bad feelings -- and partying. This year's celebration began on Tuesday, March 20 at 4:07 p.m. on the vernal equinox, as the sun crossed the celestial equator.

Estimates are that Persian New Year harkens back more than 3,500 years. It welcomes the rebirth of nature with a 13-day celebration of ancient traditions.

The Wednesday before Norooz, children and fun-loving adults dress in white sheets and re-enact visits from departed spirits, banging on pots with spoons to usher out bad spirits. They travel door to door, asking for treats in a ritual similar to Halloween. A ritual of jumping bonfires expels the cold and illness of winter, gathering health and warmth for the New Year.

As tradition would also have it, a mythical figure named Haji Firouz -- a young, charcoal-faced troubadour dressed in red satin, which symbolizes the rebirth of an ancient Sumerian god of sacrifice -- heralds the New Year by performing music and dancing in the streets, according to the Persian Mirror, an Iranian periodical.

Amoo NoRuz, or "Uncle New Day" -- an old man sporting a long white beard and dressed in green satin -- distributes sweets, money or toys and words of wisdom to the children. Packets of money are given as gifts or hidden among pages of holy books for children to find, according to Roshanak Mina, who hosted the recent Norooz celebration in Palo Alto at the Lucie Stern Community Center.

There are new clothes and cleaned homes -- everything to renew for the New Year. Families and friends gather for visits to each other's homes, feasting on ritual foods.

In the Bay Area, that tradition has expanded to include whole communities that gather in public places for group celebrations. At the Campbell Community Heritage Theatre, 860 people, many from Palo Alto and Atherton, gathered for a huge celebration on March 11, sponsored by the Persian Cultural Club and Dehkhoda Farsi School.

Nearly 100 people gathered at Lucie Stern to share the Norooz celebration.

"This year it seemed like a good time to include more people in the community. There is so much bad publicity in the media about Iranians, and I wanted to show Iranians in a different side. We have the same hopes (as other people), a rich culture and have so much to offer," said Mina.

Guests piled plates with foods laced with meaning: herbed rice and broiled sturgeon for renewal and abundance; mounds of saffron rice, meats and noodles to untangle life's encumbrances; marzipan and rosewater-tinged cookies, symbols of prosperity, to sweeten the coming year, according to Mina.

Central to the celebration are haft-seen -- seven dishes each beginning with the Persian letter "s." Placed on a ceremonial table, the seven dishes stand for seven symbols: wheatgrass for life; garlic for health; wheat pudding for affluence; an apple for beauty; dried fruit for love; sumac berries for the color of the sunrise, to bring happiness and keep evil away; and vinegar for patience.

Also on the table, a basket of painted eggs represented fertility, a mirror reflected each visitor's purity of heart; candles stood for enlightenment; and books signified faith or wisdom. A goldfish swam in a glass bowl, symbolizing life and the end of the astral year, according to Jamshid Varza, a consultant and photographer who chronicles Iranian life.

On the13th day of Norooz -- April 1 this year -- 20,000 Iranians will gather at Vasona Park in Los Gatos and at Huddart Park in Woodside, for the new year's final ritual: a day outside to take all evil out of their homes into nature to be absorbed.

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