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    TEHERAN, 20 March, 2004. (RIA Novosti). -On Saturday, Iran marks Novruz - the holiday of spring and the beginning of the new year according to a special lunisolar calendar practised in this Islamic republic (the change of lunar phases in this calendar tallies with the beginning of the new year falling on the day of vernal equinox).

    All political and business activities in the country will be put on hold throughout the first two weeks of the new 1383 year by the lunisolar calendar. All government offices and private businesses will be officially closed for the duration of the New Year holiday.

    Novruz dates back to Persia's pre-Islamic times and symbolizes the awakening of nature after its winter sleep (the word Novruz/Nowruz means `the new day` in Farsi).

    Traditionally, all Iranians exchange presents ("eidi") on Novruz. As a rule, they give their relatives and friends a certain amount of money or a souvenir, depending on how well-off the giver is.

    Iranians mark Novruz as a major family holiday. All members of the family do their best to get together round the table (`dastarhan`) in their parents' house on Novruz to see the Old Year off and welcome the New Year in.

    To make sure that all those gathered are in high spirits throughout the new year, Iranian women set up a special table ("haphtsin" - "seven sin" in literal translation) in a nest-like corner of the house. Traditionally, they lay this table with seven items whose names begin with the Farsi letter of "sin" rendering the sound "s": apple (`sib`), garlic (`sir`), dried fruits (`senjet`), kebab spice (`sumakh`), vinegar (`serkeh`), coin (`sekkeh`), and Oriental sweets (`samanuh`).

    To ensure that all the guests enjoy good health in the new year, the hosts also add newly sprouted wheat, a bowl with live gold fish, a mirror, two candles and colourfully painted boiled eggs.

    Iranians do their utmost to keep the candles burning throughout the night as they believe that a candle blown out during the Novruz night is an ill-boding sign of shorter life.

    What makes Novruz truly remarkable is the fact that Iran has been keeping the traditions of this holiday since the ancient time when the country followed Zoroastrianism, a religion named after the prophet Zoroaster (a Greek rendition of the Persian name of Zarathustra). Fire highlights all the rituals in this religion. That is why its followers (Gebrahs in Iran and Parsas in India) are often referred to as fire worshippers.

    Many other Middle East countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, as well as some Moslem autonomous republics in Russia) also celebrate the great holiday of Novruz (albeit, its name may be pronounced differently from country to country).

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