The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
The Fire Festival of Iranian Peoples
By: Massoume Price
Revised and edited by CAIS
Last Wednesday of the Iranian year know as Chahar Shanbeh Soori (Čahār Šanbé Sūrī - usually pronounced Čāršambé-sūrī), the eve of which is marked by special customs and rituals, most notably jumping over fire.
On the eve of last Wednesday of the year, literally the eve of 'Red Wednesday' or the eve of celebration, bonfires are lit in public places with the help of fire and light, it is hoped for enlightenment and happiness throughout the coming year. People leap over the flames, shouting:
Sorkhi-ye to az man; Zardi-ye man az to
Give me your beautiful red colour; And take back my sickly pallor
With the help of fire and light symbols of good, Iranians wish to see their way through this last Wednesday of the year - the end of the year and to the arrival of springs longer days.
Traditionally, it is believed that the living were visited by the spirits of their ancestors on the last day of the year. Many people specially children, wrap themselves in shrouds symbolically re-enacting the visits. By the light of the bonfire, they run through the streets banging on pots and pans with spoons called Qashog-Zani to beat out the last unlucky Wednesday of the year, while they knock on doors to ask for treats. Indeed, Halloween is a Celtic variation of this night.
In order to make wishes come true, it is customary to prepare special foods and distribute them on this night. Persian Noodle Soup known as Âsh, a filled Persian delight, and mixture of seven dried nuts and fruits, pistachios, roasted chic peas, almond, hazelnuts, figs, apricots, and raisins.
The ancient Iranians celebrated the last six days of the year in their annual obligation feast of all souls, Hamaspathmaedaya (Farvardigan or popularly Forodigan) which after the calendar reform under Ardašīr I, the founder of the fourth Iranian dynasty, the Sasanians (224-651 CE). They believed Foruhars (fravahar), the guardian-angles for humans and also the spirits of dead would come back for reunion. These spirits were entertained as honoured guests in their old homes, and were bidden a formal ritual farewell at the dawn of the New Year. The six-day festival also coincided with festivals celebrating the creation of fire and humans.
During the Sasanian dynastic era the festival was divided into two distinct pentads, known as the lesser and the greater Pentad, or Panji as it is called today. Gradually the belief developed that the 'Lesser Panji' belonged to the souls of children and those who died without sin, whereas 'Greater Panji' was truly for all souls.
Spring housecleaning was carried out and bon fires were set up on the rooftops
to welcome the return of the departed souls. Small clay figurines in shape of
humans and animals symbolizing all departed relatives and animals were also
placed on the rooftops. Zoroastrians today still follow this tradition. Flames
were burnt all night to ensure the returning spirits were protected from the
forces of Ahriman. This was called Suri festival. There were gatherings in
joyful assemblies, with prayers, feasts and communal consumption of ritually
blessed food. Rich and poor met together and the occasion was a time of general
goodwill when quarrels were made up and friendships renewed.
Some however believe, by celebrating in this manner, Iranians were able to preserve their ancient tradition. On the other hand, the use of fire in celebrations had a long history in Iran. An old custom under the Samanids of kindling a large fire on one evening before the end of the year known as šab-e sūrī (red evening/evening of celebration) without the specific rituals later associated with the festival.
The festival is celebrated on Tuesday night to make sure all bad
spirits are chased away and Wednesday will pass uneventfully. In rural areas and
remote villages flames are still burnt all night on the rooftops and outside the
homes, though people have no idea what this is all about.
The festivities start in the early evening. Children and fun seeking adults,
wrap themselves in shrouds symbolically re-enacting the visits by the departed
spirits. They run through the streets banging on pots and pans with spoons (Qāshoq
Zani or spoon banging) to beat out the last unlucky Wednesday of the year. They will
knock on doors while covered and in disguise and ask for treats. The practices
are very similar to Halloween, which is a Celtic version of similar festivals
celebrated throughout the area in ancient times.
Another routine of the Chahar Shanbeh Soori festival is the
Iranian version of Trick or Treating associated with the Western Halloween
night. Flocks of often young trick or treaters, hidden under a traditional
Chador (veil) go from door to door banging a spoon against a metal bowl asking
for treats or money.
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