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Iranian Traditions and Celebrations

CHAHAR-SHANBEH SOORI

The Fire Festival of Iranian Peoples


 

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Iranians outside and inside Iran are celebrating their national fest of Chahr-Shanbeh Suri (Click to enlarge)

 

By: Massoume Price

Revised and edited by CAIS

 

Last Wednesday of the Iranian year know as Chahar Shanbeh Soori (Čahār anb Sūrī - usually pronounced Čāramb-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 sh, 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 Ardaīr 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. 

Iranians today still carry out the spring-cleaning and set up bon fires for only one night on the last Tuesday of the year. Young and old will leap over the fires with songs and gestures of merriment. Today festival was not celebrated on this night and in this manner before coming of Islam to Iran. The modern Charshanbeh Suri is contrary to Zoroastrian cosmology where all days were sacred and named after a major deities. However, the choice of the last Wednesday of the year is likely to have been originated in Arabia. According to Arabian tradition Wednesdays are considered to be unlucky and represents a bad omen day with unpleasant consequences. In addition, jumping over fire is 'insulting", and it originated after the Islamic conquest of Iran in 7th century CE.

 

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 ab-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. 

Today the occasion is accompanied by fire works from locally made firecrackers. There is no religious significance attached to it any more and is a purely secular festival for all Iranians. On the eve before the last Wednesday, bonfires are lit through out the streets and back alleys, or with the more prosperous, inside walled gardens. People leap over the flames while shouting; 'Sorkhi-ye to az man; Zardi-ye man az to'.

 

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. 

It is believed that wishes will come true on this night, reminiscent of ancient traditions. Wishes are made and in order to make them come true, it is customary to prepare special foods and distribute them on this night. Noodle soup called 'Ash e Chahar Shanbeh Suri is prepared' and is consumed communally. Every one even strangers passing by will be served with nuts and dried fruits. This treat is called 'jil-e Chahar Shanbeh Suri' and is a mixture of seven dried nuts and fruits, pistachios, roasted chic peas, almond, hazelnuts, figs, apricots, and raisins. Local variations apply and the mixture is different according to the location and the group celebrating it. 

People who have made wishes will stand at the corner of an intersection, or hide behind walls to listen to conversation by passer-bys. If there is anything positive and optimistic in the conversation, the belief is that the wish will come true or there is good fortune to be expected. This is called Fl-Gush meaning 'listening for one's fortune'. The night will end with more fire works and feasts where family and friends meet and with the more modern Iranians music and dance will follow. Happy Chahar Shanbeh Suri, and may your wishes come true.

 

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. 

Another old and almost obsolete Chahar Shanbeh Soori ritual is Fal-gush (fortune hearing!) This ritual was carried out usually by young women wanting to know their chances of finding the "Mr. Right" in the coming year. Fāl-gush is the act of standing in a dark corner spot or behind a fence and listening to the conversations of the passers by and trying to interpret their statements or the subject of their dialogue as an answer to one's question(s)! This is analogous to calling a psychic reader to find out your fortune!!! 

In the past several decades fāl-gush has gradually become an almost unacceptable and "politically incorrect" ritual and is seldom practiced in the major urban areas.

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