By Naush Boghossian,        
Staff Writer
GLENDALE -- More than 100,000 people of Iranian ancestry in Los Angeles County are ringing in the new year in a 3,000-year-old tradition that is the culture's most important and popular annual celebration.

Known as Nowruz, the Iranian or Persian New Year celebration of life and renewal started March 20, the first day of spring, and lasts 13 days.

"Like nature that rejuvenates on the first day of spring, it is a new world, a new season, and those who believe in it should also take it as a time to clean everything, forget about old enmities, renew old friendships and start a new season in their lives in every sense of the word," said Hormoz Hekmat, editor of the quarterly Iran Nameh, based in Maryland.

For the past week, one of the most visible signs of the celebration in most Iranian homes has been the "haft seen," a display symbolizing longevity, health and good fortune.

The display typically includes seven items: sprouts to represent rebirth; a pudding symbolizing new life; apples for health and beauty; lotus fruit for love; garlic representing medicine; berries symbolizing good conquering evil; and vinegar to represent age and patience.

  Other items sometimes also included are coins for prosperity, a basket of eggs for fertility, goldfish symbolizing life, and candles representing enlightenment and happiness.

Traditional belief holds that 13 days after the new year starts, to dispel any bad luck and negativity associated with the number, Iranians spend the day outdoors.

This year, about 50,000 people of Iranian ancestry are expected to mark the occasion Sunday at Balboa Park in one of the largest Nowruz celebrations in Southern California.

"It's a big day. Nowruz is very important to us," said Roberto Soofiani, the event's organizer. "It's a big party because in the Persian community, they like to be together and celebrate."

In Iran -- a country where religion, ethnicity and nationality divide many of its people -- Nowruz is the only national holiday that transcends those differences. In fact, after the 1979 revolution in Iran, theocrats banned the holiday, but widespread opposition forced them to rescind their decision, Hekmat said.

"It doesn't matter if you're Jewish, Christian, or Behai. This is the new year for all Persians. It's our culture," said Mohammad Vahabzadeh, 48, manager of Shirin Persian Restaurant in Woodland Hills.

  Even younger generations are drawn to the spirit and message of the holiday, observing the traditions along with their elders.

"This is the most celebrated, the most welcome event, the most significant event in Iran that the younger generation is proud of," said Jaleh Pirnazar, professor of Iranian Studies at University of California at Berkeley. "The symbols mean something to them. The fact that it has been with us for thousands of years speaks to a need students have for heritage."

That holds true for student Yvette Shahgaldian.

"It's important to me because I celebrate this every year. I want to keep this tradition and pass it on to my children," said Shahgaldian, 23, of Glendale. "I remember back in Iran waiting the whole year for this event. It's a beautiful celebration of life and culture."

Naush Boghossian,

(818) 546-3306 naush.boghossian@dailynews.com