Thousands of Southern Californians -- most of Iranian descent -- gathered Sunday in Irvine in honor of the Persian New Year to celebrate rebirth and fresh starts.
The festival was particularly meaningful this year for Masoud Khoshnevis of Anaheim Hills, because last year he was forced to miss the celebration altogether.
The engineer spent more than two months in federal custody last spring because of a mix-up at a border patrol checkpoint years ago. And after he followed a federal order asking Middle Eastern immigrants to register at immigration offices, he was detained and jailed.
"Last year, I was in prison. This year, I have too much energy," said a grinning Khoshnevis, 41. "The world is in front of me. The freedom I have right now is so great."
With his pent-up excitement, he arrived at Irvine's William R. Mason Regional Park at 2 a.m., a flashlight strapped to his head. He set up tables and chairs and laid out blankets, reserving a prime spot overlooking the lake.
By late morning, all of the park's 600 parking spots were filled.
Those arriving late dropped off carloads of food, then trekked in from afar. The crowd eventually swelled to about 15,000, as temperatures climbed into the 80s.
"Every year, it's the same," said Farshid Parvin, 47, of Irvine. "Parking is always a problem. We just unload and then go park the car. We don't think it's a big thing. We just come to have a good time."
Spending time with family and friends is one of the main reasons to celebrate Persian New Year, a national holiday in Iran and the occasion for a two-week break from school.
The 13-day celebration begins on the first day of spring, which fell on March 20. Although the holiday is supposed to culminate with an outdoor picnic, that observance was advanced five days this year to better fit most people's work schedules. "This is the biggest holiday for Iranians," said Jeff Kashanchi, 54, of Palos Verdes. "The entire nation goes on a picnic. Nobody stays at home."
Staying indoors is considered bad luck, he said.
As part of the New Year's tradition, people set out several symbolic items. On their tables, they placed seven items that start with S in Persian, said Mehdi Eghbal, 47, of Torrance.
Sabsehe, or grass, represents the beginning life; seeb, or apple, represents health and beauty; and sekeh, or coins, represent prosperity.
They also set out other lucky items -- including dyed eggs for fertility and a goldfish in a bowl to represent life. Candles, one for each child in the family, represent enlightenment and happiness.
And for kids, there are presents.
"We get new clothes and money gifts," said Ali Soosk, 17. "Our parents take care of us."
It's also one big party. Ali and his friends sat around a picnic table, smoking coconut and peach-flavored tobacco from a hookah, or water pipe, which is also a Persian New Year tradition.
"The best thing is that we get to get together with our friends, people we haven't seen in a couple years," he said.
Even in a crowded, 345-acre park, friends flagged down one another for a quick hug and greetings of "Eid Mubarak."