Sunday marked the Iranian new year, celebrated at the vernal equinox--the arrival of spring.
In Southern California's estimated population of 600,000 Iranians, thousands of families observed the new year's arrival at 11:35:14 p.m., the exact second when the old year went out and the new one began.
The 3,000-year-old tradition, which traces its roots to ancient Persia, is a festive 13-day celebration marked by prayer, gift-giving, purification and the rejuvenation of the spirit.
"It is a celebration of nature, a celebration of the Earth's rebirth," Iranian writer Homa Sarshar of Bel-Air said, explaining why the holiday coincides with the arrival of spring. "It's not religious. It's national. It's Iranian."
And nowhere is its Iranian character more evident than in the setting of the "haft seen," the traditional new year's table. Some families place an egg on a mirror at the center of the table.
The egg and mirror reflect one of the colorful legends surrounding how Noruz, "new day" in Persian, began. One story says the world rests on one of the horns of Taurus, the constellation named for the bull.
The bull tires of his burden once a year and shifts it to the other horn, creating a sudden jolt to the Earth. When the bull shifts his heavy load, Iranians watch the egg on the new year's table to see it roll.
Sarshar's neighbor, Pardis Mirzaii, does not set her new year's table with the egg and mirror.
"Our family's tradition is to eat the egg," she said, laughing. "We don't watch it move. We eat half of our egg in the old year and half in the new."
"Haft seen" comes from the Persian words meaning seven and the letter s. The new year's table is set with seven items beginning with s.
A "haft seen" will contain such foods as senjed (a sweet, dry fruit), symbolizing regeneration because of its seed, and sabzeh (sprouted grains), symbolizing life.
Light, representing goodness, is represented by candles left to burn themselves out, Sarshar said. A bowl with goldfish on the table brings good luck in the coming year if you are gazing into it at the moment the new year arrives, she said.
Iranian new year's celebrations begin two weeks before the actual day. One tradition calls for lighting a fire outside, where families gather around to dance and sing.
"We put a log in our backyard, lit it and jumped over it," said Mirzaii. "Five family members jumped the log, saying to the fire: 'My yellow or sickness to you, your red or health to me.' It's a way of saying may the fire purify me."
Sarshar said that when the fires burn down to ashes, a woman from each family gathers the ashes and throws them away.
On the 13th or last day of the new year celebration, Iranians traditionally go to parks for large gatherings called Sizdeh Bedar, meaning "Thirteenth Day, Demons Away."
That observance will be held on April 2, the 12th day, this year because it falls on a Sunday, when people do not have to work, Sarshar said.