Leaping over open fires, feasting on foods rich with symbolism, and general merrymaking — these are all aspects of Nowruz, the springtime holiday that heralds the start of the Persian new year.
Straddling the spring equinox (around March 20), this pre-Islamic festival, whose name means “new day,” has roots in the ancient, fire-revering Zoroastrian religion and is believed to be 3,000 years old. Today, Nowruz is observed in Iran and in parts of Turkey, Iraq, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
“It’s about celebrating birth and renewal and spring.” says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, which, on Saturday, will mark the start of the Persian year 1394 with the galleries’ seventh annual Nowruz festival. Here’s a guide to the free event’s highlights:
Jump over the fire
Harking back to the holiday’s Zoroastrian origins, the purification ritual of jumping over bonfires is one of the most popular Nowruz traditions. The Freer and Sackler, not wanting to risk igniting priceless art, offer child-friendly faux fires outside both galleries made of orange cloth “flames” blown by fans.
Gather around the table
The centerpiece of any Nowruz celebration is the haft sin (meaning “seven s’s”), a table laid out with seven foods that each start with the letter “s” in Persian and have a symbolic meaning — including sprouts (rebirth), apples (health and beauty) and garlic (medicine) — along with items like coins and candles. The Sackler Pavilion and the Freer North Corridor each showcase a haft sin table. At the Freer, you can make your own haft sin paper collage.
Songs of Persia
New York-based band Mitra Sumara, featuring Iranian-American vocalist Yvette Perez, offers a funky, updated take on Persian pop songs from the ’60s and ’70s at the Freer. (Free tickets for the 1 and 4 p.m. concerts are available via Ticketmaster.)
U.K. storyteller Xanthe Gresham returns to the festival (in the Ripley Center at noon, 2 and 4 p.m.) to share traditional Persian tales. She’ll spotlight Bahram Gur, a fifth-century Sasanian king who, as curator Farhad puts it, was “known for his hunting skills and married all these princesses from various parts of the world.”
Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive and 12th Street SW; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW; Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m., free.