CHAHAR SHANBE SURI: 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 (Farvardegan or popularly Forodigan). They believed Farevashi (Forouhars), the guardian angles for humans and 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 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 bon fires were set up on the rooftops to welcome the return of the departed souls. Food and wine were put aside for the spirits. 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 with clay figurines if possible. Flames were burnt all night to ensure the returning spirits were protected from the forces of darkness. This was called Suri festival. There were gatherings in joyful assemblies, with feasts and communal consumption of food that was blessed ritually. Rich and poor met together and the occasion was a time of general goodwill when quarrels were made up and friendships renewed. Even today many families visit graveyards and pray for their dead relatives just before No Ruz. This is considered a blessed act and is regarded as an obligation by many, especially if the dead person is a very close kin.
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. In rural areas and remote villages flames are still burnt all night outside the homes, though people have no idea what this is all about. Till recently in parts of Azerbaijan all the Wednesdays in the month of Espand, the last month of the year was devoted to one particular task related to New Year. For example the first Wednesday was to clean or wash the carpets, while the second was to do No Ruz shopping. Sabzeh was grown on the third one while the last Wednesday was to fix items needing repair.
This festival was not celebrated on this night and in this manner before Islam and is a combination of different rituals to make pre-Islamic rituals last. Islamic accounts trace the origin of burning fires on rooftop to a Muslim hero, Mukhtar a supporter of Shiite leader Ali and his family. He was very instrumental in popularizing Shiite in Iran. According to such accounts he revolted against the ruling Arab dynasty after his release from jail. He was going to attack and destroy all homes belonging to the enemy.
He ordered Shiite supporters to set bon fires on their rooftops so that they could tell the difference between the friends and the enemies. This happened on the night before the last Wednesday and ever since then Iranians celebrate the occasion. Such accounts clearly indicate the strategies Iranians adapted in order to save their ancient rituals.
Wednesday in popular culture represents another bad omen day with unpleasant consequences. The festival is celebrated on Tuesday night to make sure all bad spirits are chased away and Wednesday will pass uneventfully. Some of the taboos are pre-Islamic. People do not travel and sick people are not visited on this night, in Zoroastrian tradition illness was assumed to be associated with demons and these were avoided by staying away from the sick.
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; ‘sorkhie tu az man, zardieh man az tu’. Your fiery red color is mine and my yellow paleness is your. 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.
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. People passing by are 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 anybody passing by. 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, feasts where family and friends meet and with the more modern Iranians music and dance will follow.