Akitu is a spring festival celebrated by the Assyrians, who are the modern-day descendants of the ancient Mesopotamians (i.e. the indigenous peoples of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey). The festival originated in ancient Mesopotamia to celebrate the sowing of barley and was held on the first day of the first month of the year, called Nisan. Akitu was originally celebrated for 12 days beginning on the spring equinox (March 21), but it got shifted to April 1 after Assyrians adapted to the Gregorian calendar for Christianity. Regardless of the date, the Assyrian calendar begins with the month of Nisan, and that is also why Akitu is referred to as Kha b’Nisan, meaning “the first of Nisan.”
Akitu marks rebirth, renewal and new beginnings, in addition to the new year. There is a central myth that the festival is founded upon the idea that Inanna, the goddess of love, married Dumuzid, the god of vegetation and shepherds, on the spring equinox. This union blessed people and the earth with fertility and guaranteed the renewal of life.
Although many of the ancient traditions are no longer in place, there are a few that we have kept to this day. Cultural processions still happen, with grand parade floats roaring down the streets of heavily Assyrian-populated cities, like Chicago. People create floral displays called Diqna d’Nissan or “the beard of spring” where flowers and herbs are gathered (or bought) and hung outside of homes. Some like to set up an Akitu Table in their home with items that represent rebirth and renewal. People also love to end the night with parties and social gatherings filled with family and friends. It is a time to have fun, relax, and let all the new blessings that come with a new year wash over you.
Akitu is one of the most important celebrations that keeps us connected to our heritage and ancestors. It reminds us of the grandeur and glory of ancient Mesopotamia while also grounding us in the present with promises of revival and rejuvenation. This year marks 6,771 years that the Assyrian people have been here; here is to many more!