(THE FESTIVAL OF THE LAST WEDNESDAY)
By: Massoume Price
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, the guardian angles for humans and also the spirits of the dead would come back for a 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 coincided with festivals celebrating the creation of fire and humans. In Sassanian period 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 bonfires 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 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 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 the 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 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 eve before the last Wednesday, bonfires are lit throughout the streets and back alleys, or with the more prosperous, inside walled gardens. People leap over the flames while shouting; ‘sorkhie tu az man, zardieh man az tu’. Your fiery red color is mine and my sickly yellow paleness is yours. This is a purification rite and ‘suri’ itself means red and fiery.
The festivities start in the early evening. Children and fun seeking adults, wrap themselves in shrouds symbolically reenacting the visits by the departed spirits. They run through the streets banging on pots and pans with spoons (Gashog-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 ‘Ajeel 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 passerby’s. 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’. 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.
By: Massoume Price
Massoume Price is a Social Anthropologist and Human Ecologist from London University, Kings and University Colleges. She specializes in ancient Mesopotamian Studies. She currently lives in Canada. Works with a number of Women’s organizations and is a free lance writer.