Chahārshanbe Suri: The Festival of Fire

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Chahārshanbe Suri: The Festival of Fire

Chahārshanbe Suri: The Festival of Fire

Chahārshanbe Suri چهارشنبه سوری is a Persian festival celebrated on the final Tuesday evening of the Persian solar year, that’s to say the last Tuesday evening before Nowruz. This year (1402 AH/2023 AD) it falls on Tuesday 14th March.  

In this blog post we will give you a quick overview of this special night, and look at some of the many ways that Iranians chose to celebrate Chahārshanbe Suri.

Image from Jake Pierrelee on Unsplash

Jumping over the fire (پریدن از روی آتش)

Similar to Nowruz (the Persian New Year), Chahārshanbe Suri is a celebration which is notable for having its origins in Zoroastrianism and is therefore an example of pre-Islamic Persian cultural heritage which has survived to the present day. Originally, Chahārshanbe Suri was centered around the celebration of fire as one of the four sacred elements of the Zoroastrian faith. This celebration symbolised, and indeed continues to symbolise, jumping from the dark into the light; in terms of the dark winter into the light of spring, but also in terms of the fire taking away negative energy and sickness. For this reason, the most noteworthy tradition on Chahārshanbe Suri is jumping over a bonfire. Jumping over the flames can be thought of as jumping into the New Year and breaking free from the darkness of winter. It is also a ritual to purify and cleanse oneself. 

When jumping over the flames, it is customary to address the fire and say:

«زردیِ من از تو، سُرخیِ تو از من»

Zardi-ye man az to, sorkhi-ye to az man

‘May my paleness be yours, and may your redness be mine.’

This is said in order to transfer your troubles to the fire. The fire can then absorb your زردی zardi ‘paleness, sickness, weakness’ to bring you stength and health ready for the New Year.

The origins of Chahārshanbe Suri (ریشه و پیدایش این جشن)

The earliest mentionings of a celebration taking place at this time of the year begin with the feast day of Hamaspāθmaēdaya-, which, according to professor Gikyō Itō, has the possible meaning of ‘the festival for furthering all’. Hamaspāθmaēdaya- took place on the last Wednesday before Nowruz, beginning after sunset and finishing at sunrise the next morning. We know this festival has been celebrated since at least the 3rd century AD, thanks to it being referenced in a calendar reform by the Sassanid king Ardashir I.

In the 10th century AD, the Sogdian scholar Narshaki refers to an old Samanid ritual of ‘kindling a large fire on one evening before the end of the year’ (Iranica Online), which he called شبِ سوری shab-e suri ‘red night/festive night’. The historian Biruni in his آثار الباقیة āthār ul-bāqiyah ‘Chronology of Ancient Nations’ also writes about the days before Persian New Year being a sacred time for self-reflection and respect for one’s ancestors, as well as a time for cleaning the home ready for the new year. 

So we can say with certainty that this festival has been celebrated for at least 2,000 years, and it is probably that Chahārshanbe Suri, in some form or another, has been celebrated for much longer than that. 

It is also worth mentioning that many Iranians associate the origins of Chahārshanbe Suri with the story of سیاوش Siyāvash from Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāme epic, although the historical accuracy of this is impossible to verify. In the Shāhnāme, the Persian prince Siyāvash is accused of having impure relations with his stepmother سودابه Sudābe, and he must prove his innocence by crossing a corridor of fire. Suffice to say, Siyāvash and his steed were able to cross through the fire unharmed, thus proving his innocence and purity.

‘The Fire Ordeal of Prince Siyavash’, gouache painting by a Persian artist, ca. 1800. Image from the Wellcome Collection.

What does the name mean? (ریشه‌جوییِ واژه‌ها)

The name of this festival is a little bit confusing. Chahārshanbe چهارشنبه means ‘Wednesday’, but actually this festival is celebrated on the last Tuesday night of the Persian year. In spoken Persian, Chahārshanbe becomes shortened to Chārshanbe.

Suri سوری has two possible etymological origins: either from a variation of the word سُرخ sorkh ‘red’, referring to the flames of the bonfire, or deriving from the word سور sur meaning ‘festival, celebration’. In other Iranian languages, such as Kurdish and Pashto, sur also means ‘red’, adding weight to the first etymological argument.

Banging on spoons (قاشق‌زنی) and other traditions ( آیین‌های دیگر)

Although slowly becoming less popular in contemporary Iran, one important ritual of this night is قاشُق‌زنی qāshoq-zani ‘spoon banging’. Children go out into the street in the evening and bang on pots and pans with spoons and other kitchen utensils. It is believed that this tradition was started to help ward away evil spirits from the neighbourhood. 

Another tradition is کوزه‌شکنی kuze-shekani ‘pot smashing’, where families fill an old pot with salt, charcoal and coins, then throw it from the roof of their house onto the street below. The pot represents the old year and the beginning of a new cycle. It is then customary to shout:

«درد و بَلا تو کوزه، کوزه می‌ره تو کوچه»

Dard-o balā tu kuze, kuze mi-re tu kuche

‘Throw our pain and misfortune into the pot, through the pot into the street.’

In contemporary Iran, Chahārshanbe Suri has become an excuse to let off a lot of آتش‌بازی ātesh-bāzi ‘fireworks’. The Qajar king ناصرالدین شاه Nāser od-Din Shāh popularised this trend of lighting fireworks on Chahārshanbe Suri, after an impressive firework display was organised for his entertainment.

Image by Zuza Gałczyńska on Unsplash.

Traditional food (آش و آجیلِ چهارشنبه سوری)

No Chahārshanbe Suri night is complete without a hearty bowl of آش āsh ‘thick vegetable soup’, which has got to be the perfect way to mark the end of a long winter! Traditionally, different regions of Iran have their own preferred Chahārshanbe Suri āsh recipe. In Tehran, the most common āsh prepared for this celebration is آشِ رِشته āsh-e reshte ‘āsh with green beans and noodles’. While in Māzandarān Province, a sour soup called آشِ گَزَنه āsh-e gazane is more common. In the Khorāsān region, a bean stew called آشِ ابودردا āsh-e abudardā is commonly prepared, but in fact this type of āsh has become associated with Chahārshanbe Suri all over Iran. In Ardabil Province, families cook a special kind of stew called آشِ هفت میوه āsh-e haft mive ‘7 fruit soup’. 

On the night of Chahārshanbe Suri it is also customary for families to prepare and eat a fruit and nut mixture called آجیلِ مُشکِل‌گُشا ājil-e moshkel-goshā, which is normally composed of almonds, hazelnuts, apricots, dried chickpeas, raisins, currants, pistachios and باسلوق bāsluq (a type of sweet). Iranians avoid adding salt to the mixture, because if they keep their ājil sweet, then their coming year will also be sweet.

Image by Peter F on Unsplash.

Regional variations (تنوع منطقه‌ای)

As we already saw with the different āsh recipes, Chahārshanbe Suri is celebrated in different ways in different parts of Iran. However, whichever Iranian city you visit for this celebration night, the one thing that remains invariable is the presence of a bonfire. 

Iranian Azerbaijan (آذربایجانِ ایران)

In East Azerbaijan Province it is customary for family members to splash rose water on one another, which is believed to bring happiness and good luck. It is also common for the groom’s family to send a platter of sweets, آجیل ājil, and other foods to the bride’s family’s house. This platter is called a خُنچه khonche or خونچه khunche. In اُرومیه Orumiye ‘Urmia’, families prepare a special آجیل ājil mixture and bring it to the home of their oldest family member to enjoy together. 

Bushehr (بوشهر)

The people of Bushehr celebrate next to the sea, and after they have jumped over the bonfire, it is customary to take a boat out onto the sea or to dip their feet into the water. While they do this, the Bushehri people say:

«درد و غمم در بیشو/ تو آو دریه بیشو»

Dard-o gham-am dar bishu, tu āv darya bishu

‘Let my pain and sorrow go, let it go into the water’

Kurdistan (کردستان)

In the villages of Kurdistan it is customary for everybody to go to the local spring and collect a pebble. When returning home from the spring, people will throw the pebbles behind them without looking back, which is believed to prevent misfortune in the coming year.

Shirāz (شیراز)

In Shiraz, girls bring good luck by visiting the سعدیه Sa’diye ‘Sa’di’s mausoleum’ and taking water from the pool there and pouring it over their heads. 

There are many more local customs practiced throughout Iran, which vary from family to family or from village to village: certainly too many to list here in their entirety. 

Image from Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

On behalf of everyone at Persian Language Online, we wish you all a merry Chahārshanbe Suri: gather around the bonfire with your family and friends, and reflect on the year that has passed together, wherever in the world you may be.

!چهارشنبه سوری مبارک 

– Sam

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