Sunday, Iranians worldwide will celebrate Norouz, the Persian New Year. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports on activities in Los Angeles, the U.S. city with the heaviest concentration of Iranian Americans.
The annual celebration begins the last Wednesday of the old year, so Tuesday night in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, families gathered to commemorate Chahar Shanbeh Souri, an ancient Persian cultural festival. More than 2000 adults and children took part in festivities outside the Los Angeles offices of the Iranian American Muslim Association of North America. Saman Namazikhah points to small piles of wood stacked in an outdoor courtyard, which were about to be set on fire.
"What we do is an event where we have bonfires, small bonfires, and we jump over them," he explaines. "Jumping over them in a sense is purifying our soul and cleansing our body for the new year to come."
The ritual dates from pre-Islamic Persia, when followers of the Zoroastrian religion celebrated the purifying properties of fire.
The Persian New Year is held at the spring equinox, which arrives in Los Angeles this year in the early hours of Sunday morning. The day is usually spent at home or in the houses of relatives, says Mr. Namazikhah.
"Iranians celebrate it being with their family, and they have a table spread which signifies spring because the Iranian New Year is the first day of spring," he notes.
The family table is set with special foods and traditional items. Seven dishes all begin with the Persian letter "sinn" or "s," and include apples, garlic and vinegar. Other symbolic items may include coins, rice, colored eggs or goldfish.
Ramtin, 10, an Iranian Muslim boy who attended the festival with his Christian friend Allen, says Norouz is special for him, just as Christmas is special for Allen, whose parents come from Iran but are of Armenian background.
"It's a time when we Persians all celebrate what we have," he adds. "It's kind of like, as he [Allen] celebrates Christmas, and it's a fun time when we all gather with our families and relatives.
Norouz is the central holiday in the Persian calendar, says Iranian-born Delnaz Behzadpour, who moved to the United States in the 1970s.
"It's one of the most important days of our lives. I have three kids and they were all born here and they all celebrating the New Year with us," she says.
Saman Namazikhah says New Year festivities in Los Angeles are multi-religious.
"We have Zoroastrians, we have Christians, Armenians, we have Baha'is, we have Jewish people, and of course, we have Muslims," adds Mr. Namazikhah.
Festivities will continue for 13 days into the new year. On the 13th day, people will gather in a park for a picnic and traditional rituals. In Southern California, thousands will attend an event at a park in the city of Irvine, south of Los Angeles.
Iranian immigrant Delnaz Behzadpour says that in the United States, the celebration of Norouz and associated festivals keeps her Persian traditions alive for her three children. She says it also provides a way of introducing Iranian culture to her neighbors in this country of immigrants.