Iran being a vast country, has different climates. I usually find myself explaining how we do have winters, we do have snow and temperatures do drop below zero. We are, however, fortunate to experience four seasons each year. Having a mere three month of each season, we find ourselves appreciating each quarter. Just as we welcome the winter on the last night of autumn- the eve of the Winter Solstice- with pomegranates, nuts and poetry, we also bid farewell to the cold season by lighting bonfires, making wishes and jumping over the flames. Food is present and so is music. The best elements for an outside dance party, which this ritual usually turns into.
On the eve of the last Wednesday (Chahaarshanbeh) of the Persian year, the last Tuesday of the winter, Iranians gather around bonfires. Citizens of the northern parts tucked cozily in layers of wool and polyester, while those in the warmer areas witnessing the change of seasons, portray their readiness to welcome spring in lighter clothing. Finished with and relieved from the spring cleaning, Persians light fires in their back yards, on city streets, in the suburbs, on the sandy beaches of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, in Iran and abroad…
Different cultures have different relationships with colours. Iranians find red as a shade resembling felicity, vibrance and health, lauding it by singing “Sorkhie to az man/I take your redness” as the jump over the fire, right after offering the fire their own yellowness, a colour that symbolises sorrow, weariness and malady “zardie man az to”.
The Zoroastrian Tradition
The ancient Persians were Zoroastrians, celebrating the last ten days of winter with feasts, believing the Foruhars, the guardian angels for humans, as well as the spirits of the dead would return and reunite.
These spirits and ghosts were considered honoured guests, being hosted and entertained, finally to be bidden farewell on the sunrise of the new year. (Persians still got it…If they can host ghosts well, they can host anyone well. Hospitality is the one adjective that pops up in almost every travel report by a visitor of Iran. Here, here, and here…)
The ten day celebrations coincided with festivals honouring the creation of humans and fire. Contrary to popular belief, in the Zoroastrian religion, fire is not worshiped but deeply respected, since the blazing element, together with water, is an agent of purity, used in religious rituals of purifying and cleansing. The two elements have remained as two vital agents in Iranian culture, regardless of the era’s religion.
To welcome the departed, homes underwent spring-cleaning before bonfires were lit on rooftops surrounded by clay animal and human figurines. With the flames burning until sunrise, the Zoroastrians believed to be protecting the spirits from Ahriman. These joyful rituals are still carried today by the Persian Zoroastrians, with the presence of blessed food.
Although the majority of today’s Iranians limit their fire celebrations to one night, that being the last Tuesday night of the year, falling within the second half of the ten-day festivities, we still very religiously carry out the tedious and exaggerated ritual of spring-cleaning. “This is the last time I’m giving into this spring-cleaning humdrum” my exhausted mother says every March, yet come next February and the maid is ringing the doorbell twice a week to “get a thorough cleaning done this year”. For how can one host the guests pouring in during Nowruz in anything but a shining home, meticulously scrubbed clean to perfection?
From the Shahnameh
Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is best described to non-Persians when likened to Homer’s Illyad. The name literally translates to “Book of Kings” and so it is. Written in the three decades between 977 A.D and 1010 A.D in more than 50,000 rhyming couplets, it is the longest epic poem written by a single poet. Although it is primarily mythical, telling tales of great men and women, at times invincible to the effects of time and age, it has been debatable that the stories were inspired by real people and events, accelerated to reach epic measures.
Among one of Shaahnameh’s stories, we read the tale of Siavash, the son of Keykavoos, the king of Iran. Widowed when his son is a young boy, the king remarries an alluring woman; Soodabeh. Beautiful and seductive, Soodabeh is used to getting what she wants and the sight of Siavash’s handsome features sends “flames in her heart”.
With her enticing ways, she lures Siavash to her mansion, before confessing her love for him, embracing the prince in her arms and kissing him. Siavash, embarrassed and angry, weasels his way out of his step-mother’s embrace, telling her that he sees her as his mother. Soodabeh, afraid of the revelation of the truth to her husband, throws a tantrum, ripping off her clothes in an attempt to portray Siavash as guilty of adultery.
When the king discovers the dispute, he demands an explanation from his son. Siavash confident about his innocence offers to pass through a fire tunnel, explaining “if I am guilty I will burn in the inferno, and if innocent I shall pass untouched by the flames”.
Naturally due to his chastity, Siavash exits the fire tunnel unharmed, leaving his father buoyant and proud. The king declares that day (the last Tuesday of the year) a day of celebration, ordering festivities across the country. Those more familiar with historical and biblical stories would recognise the similarities of Ferdowsi’s anecdote and the story of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, though the poet included the importance of fire in Persian literature and culture, not only its cleansing and purifying effect but as a divine test in revealing innocence.
Bearing resemblance to Halloween in origin and reason, Chaaharshanbeh Soori includes a counterpart to the Trick or Treat practice; Ghasoghzani. Literally translated to “Hitting Spoons”, the custom involves children trekking through the streets, a spoon in one hand, a metal pot in another, banging on one with the other (hence the name), in an attempt to frighten the evil spirits. The spoon-hitters knock on doors, collecting “treats” -sweets and Ajil, a collective mix of dried fruit and nuts- without the need to threaten their neighbours with a “trick”.
In my family our fingers and bellies are warmed up by a Persian dish, called Aash Reshteh, the beans and the dairy in the “Kashk” giving us just enough energy to make the trip from one side of the bonfire to the other, only to stand in line for another round of jumping.
To read about the dish and how to prepare it, head on over to Saffron Spoon, and let your eyes feast on Niusha’s mouthwatering recipe and visual descriptions of the meal.
So while you go pick up the ingredients for Aashe Reshte from the closest Middle-eastern shop, I shall finish packing, for tomorrow I am hopping on an IranAir flight heading towards Tehran. Yes, this year I will be celebrating my favourite holiday at home…