“Chahar Shanbeh Soori” or Festival of Fire
Last Wednesday of the year (Chahar Shanbeh Soori): On the evening before of last Wednesday of the year, 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-e to az man) Give me your beautiful red color
(Zardi-e man az to) and take back my sickly paleness!
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 spring’s longer days. Traditionally, it is believed that the livings were visited by the spirits of their ancestors on the last day of the year. Many people especially children, wrap themselves in coverings symbolically recreating 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.
The ancient Iranians celebrated the last 10 days of the year in their annual obligation feast of all souls, Farvardingan. They believed Faravhars (foruhars), the guardian angles for humans and also the spirits of dead would come back for reunion. These spirits were entertained as honored guests in their old homes, and were bidden a formal ritual farewell at the dawn of the New Year. The ten-day festival also matched with festivals celebrating the creation of fire and humans.
Spring house cleaning was carried out and bon fires were set up on the rooftops to welcome the return of the departed souls. Small clay figures 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 (devil). This was called Suri festival. There were gatherings in joyful assemblies, with prayers, feasts and public 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 bonfires for only one night on the last Tuesday of the year. Young and old will leap over the fires with songs and gestures of happiness. 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 different to Zoroastrian cosmology where all days were sacred and named after a major divinity. 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 fireworks from locally made firecrackers. There is no religious significance attached to it anymore and is a purely secular festival for all Iranians. On the evening before the last Wednesday, bonfires are lit throughout the streets and back alleys, or with the richer, inside walled gardens. People leap over the flames while shouting; ‘sorkhie to az man, zardieh man az to’.
People who have made wishes will stand at the corner of an intersection, or hide behind walls to listen to conversation by passerbies. 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 Fal-Gush meaning ‘listening for one’s fortune’. In the past several decades falgoosh has gradually become an almost unacceptable and “politically incorrect” ritual and is seldom practiced in the major urban areas. The night will end with more fireworks and feasts where family and friends meet and with the more modern Iranians music and dance will follow.
Another ritual 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, hidden under a traditional Chador (veil) go from door to door banging a spoon against a metal bowl asking for treats or money.
“Happy Chahar Shanbeh Suri, and May your wishes come true.”