Iranian Traditions and Celebrations
The Fire Festival of Iranian People
Abstract: Chaharshanbeh-Souri (also written Chaharshanbeh Soori, Charshanbeh Suri, Chahr Shanbeh Soori) is an ancient Iranian festival dating at least back to 1700 BCE of the early Zoroastrian era. The festival of fire is a prelude to the ancient “Nowruz” festival, which marks the arrival of spring and revival of nature. Nowruz, or the New Year’s Day in the Iranian calendar, falls on March 21 this year.
Last Wednesday of the year know as Chahar Shanbeh Soori (Čahār Šanbé Sūrī): 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, we hope to see our way through this unlucky night – the end of the year- 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 Gashog-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.
Noodle Soup (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 10 days of the year in their annual obligation feast of all souls, Hamaspathmaedaya (Farvardigan or popularly Forodigan). 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 ten-day festival also coincided with festivals celebrating the creation of fire and humans. In 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. This festival was not celebrated on this night and in this manner before Islam and might be a combination of different rituals to make them last. Wednesday in Islamic tradition represents a bad omen day with unpleasant consequences. This is contrary to Zoroastrian cosmology where all days were sacred and named after a major deity. By celebrating in this manner Iranians were able to preserve the ancient tradition. 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 ‘Âjil-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 Fâl-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!!!