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Iranians celebrate ancient festival marking end of Persian New Year holidays

Tehran (AP)- Eager to put aside economic woes and memories of a harsh winter that claimed 64 lives, Iranians flocked to parks and orchards on Tuesday to mark the ancient festival of Sizdeh Bedar, the last day of the two-week Persian New Year holidays.

The festival predates Islam and goes back thousands of years to the time when Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of Persia.

And although the hard-line ruling clerics of today's Islamic Republic have discouraged many pre-Islamic rituals, they have failed to put Iranians off the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, and its ending celebration of Sizdeh Bedar.

The holiday's unfaltering popularity is largely due to the Iranians' passion for family gatherings and outdoor festivities.

Tehran parks were packed Tuesday with families sitting on rugs spread out on the grass, sipping tea and munching on nuts. An elaborate picnic lunch is traditionally part of the celebration.

Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Iran follows the Persian solar year, which begins on the first day of spring. This March 20, Iran began the year 1387. Along with Iranians, Kurds and people in parts of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan celebrate Nowruz — which is a Persian word for New Year.

Sizdeh Bedar falls on the thirteenth day of Nowruz. Sizdeh is 13 and Bedar means "passing" in Persian. It is believed to be bad luck to stay indoors on the holiday.

The ancient festival has several customs. Iranians throw trays of sprouted seeds that have been sitting on their Nowruz tables into water representing happy life. Young and old alike tie blades of grass or flowers together in the hope the New Year will be filled with happiness and prosperity. Young girls usually make wishes to get married as they tie the blades of grass.

Iranian woes have surged in recent months, amid a sharp increase in the price of vegetables and housing and the reported death of 64 Iranians from cold winter due to gas cuts. The two-week Nowruz holiday also gave Iranians a chance to tune out from the country's ongoing nuclear dispute with the West and U.N. Security Council sanctions over Tehran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment.