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What is Nowruz, the Persian new year? 'Shahs of Sunset' stars explain

Reza Farahan and Golnesa "GG" Gharachedaghi discuss the holiday's traditions in an interview with TODAY.
/ Source: TODAY

This weekend marks the start of the spring season — and with it the start of Nowruz, the Persian new year.

Nowruz is a festive 13-day celebration, a time to turn the page on the previous year and look forward to what’s ahead. (“Rebirth” and “renewal” are two words often associated with Nowruz.) It’s also a holiday filled with tradition.

“It’s like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa … the equivalent of Easter, Hanukkah. All of the holidays that most people know about, put them in a blender and we celebrate that,” said Reza Farahan, one of the stars of the long-running Bravo reality series “Shahs of Sunset.”

Farahan and fellow cast member Golnesa "GG" Gharachedaghi provided an overview of Nowruz and how they celebrate the new year in an interview with TODAY.

What is Nowruz?

Nowruz (“new day” in Farsi) is a secular holiday that coincides with the spring equinox; this year, the equinox occurs Saturday at 5:37 a.m. Eastern time.

Nowruz dates back more than 3,000 years, with ties to Zoroastrianism. Today it is celebrated by more than 300 million people around the world. While it’s an important date on the Iranian calendar, Nowruz is also celebrated in other countries elsewhere in the Middle East and in surrounding regions, according to the United Nations.

In the United States, Nowruz is a time to rejoice for Iranian Americans from coast to coast. There are an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Iranian Americans in the U.S., half of whom live in California, the Department of State reported in 2018. The Los Angeles area, where “Shahs of Sunset” is based, in particular has a strong Iranian American community.

All of the holidays that most people know about, put them in a blender and we celebrate that.

Reza Farahan

Gharachedaghi and Farahan both stressed that Nowruz is an inclusive holiday.

“It has no religious affiliation. It just makes it so beautiful to know it's just about life. I would love people to understand that and welcome Nowruz into their lives, without having to be Persian or Middle Eastern. It's just a beautiful, beautiful celebration,” Gharachedaghi said.

As Farahan put it, “This is really just a holiday for the people — the Earth!”

What are the Nowruz traditions?

Perhaps the most notable tradition is the haft sin — a table display featuring seven items that begin with the “s” sound in Farsi, each with its own symbolic meaning. It typically includes items such as sprouts (sabzeh in Farsi), representing rebirth; apples (seeb), representing health and beauty; and vinegar (serkeh), representing patience.

The haft sin display can be expanded to feature other items like hyacinth, decorated eggs and goldfish. The latter symbolizes life, though it can be a challenge to actually keep the goldfish alive during the holiday. Farahan saw his goldfish die in a 2018 Nowruz-themed episode of “Shahs of Sunset” — a moment that many who celebrate Nowruz could undoubtedly relate to.

He’s skipping the goldfish this year, though mainly because he owns several cats.

“Fish in a house with cats is like — it's a treat, it's like a snack,” he said. “So we're going to forgo the fish this year and save the goldfish and just have it there symbolically. We will have little goldfish representing the Pepperidge Farm kind.”

A traditional haft sin table Youshij Yousefzadeh / Shutterstock

The notion of the new year representing a rebirth or renewal is also evident in the tradition known as Chaharshanbe Suri (“red Wednesday”), which begins the Tuesday night before Nowruz. Participants jump over a bonfire in what can be considered a purifying ritual.

“We celebrate the ending of the year with going to the beach at night and we set fires — well, in LA we have a beach — but anywhere you just make a fire and you jump over the fire while saying a certain saying, which is basically getting rid of all the last year, all the negativities, and welcoming in the good,” Gharachedaghi said.

(Nowruz) has no religious affiliation. It just makes it so beautiful to know it's just about life.

Golnesa Gharachedaghi

That’s also the theme underlying the final day of the 13-day festivities, known as Sizdah Bedar (“13” and “outdoors”). Family and friends gather for picnics, enjoy the outdoors and release whatever negative vibes that were carried over from the previous year. The sprouts from the haft sin are thrown into a nearby lake or river as another symbol of renewal.

All this, plus gift-giving, spring cleaning and other activities in the lead-up to and during Nowruz.

In describing his favorite Nowruz memories, Farahan shared, “It's just, like, the first day of spring, new money, new clothing, the house smelled great. The energy was infectious. And I just love March because of it.”

Which foods are eaten during Nowruz?

Sabzi polo ba mahi — herbed rice with fish — is a common dish in households during Nowruz. Farahan pointed out that the fish is typically smoked whitefish or fried whitefish — but don’t serve either to him.

“It reeks and neither Golnesa nor I enjoy it,” he said, adding that he’s also not a fan of another rice dish that can be served during the new year, shevid polo (dill rice). His preference (and Gharachedaghi’s): zereshk polo (rice with barberries).

Sabzi polo with tahdig (a crispy layer of rice made at the bottom of the pot)Michael Kraus / Shutterstock

Gharachedaghi explained that the process of making a traditional Nowruz meal is a lengthy one.

“The rice is a traditional sabzi rice, right? All the women traditionally would get together and spend a whole day just chopping all the greens up. It's part of the culture when you would walk into the room and you would smell your mom just sitting there chopping for hours on end,” she said. “So I love the rice, but my mom will make zereshk polo and I'll put the meat onto the sabzi.”

Nowruz: A time for family

Gharachedaghi said this coming Nowruz is a “big one” for her, in no small part because it’s her first as a mom. She welcomed her son, Elijah, last April. She’s looking forward to sharing her excitement over her favorite holiday with her son.

“I think it's a really awesome feeling to be so passionate about something that you just can't wait to share it with your child. It's a very different level of excitement,” she said. “So I'm really excited to just have him smell the sense of the room and see the things and partake in maybe this little egg game that we like to do. It's a beautiful thing.”

Farahan said his husband, Adam Neely, has shown great interest in Nowruz and Persian culture in general.

“I happen to be married to someone who not only partakes, but dives in deep. He gets involved, he wants to know, and then he'll start growing hyacinth and then he'll be like, ‘Oh, sabzeh, some are wheatgrass, some households would grow barley, some would do lentils.’ So he literally, once he gets ahold or a taste of something from our culture, he runs with it, he embraces it. So it's a blessing. He's very, very, very supportive in that way and it's awesome,” Farahan said.

This year, Gharachedaghi and Farahan are each planning a family-only celebration for the first day of Nowruz in light of the pandemic. (Gharachedaghi noted that her “entire family” has been vaccinated, and Farahan said his mother has received both doses.)

“It's just about immediate family and hopefully 2022 or very soon in the near future we can have some semblance of normalcy,” Farahan said.