The Zoroastrian Holy Season
As we look forward to the celebration of Nowruz 2022 at the time of the Vernal Equinox on Sunday 20th March 2022 at 15:33:26 GMT, we hope that you enjoy reading this informative article, kindly contributed by fellow Zoroastrian and scholar Pablo Vazquez, about the festivals celebrated during what can be called the “Zoroastrian Holy Season”.
The festival are:
- Charharshanbe Suri,
- Khordad Sal.
What are these festivals? How are they celebrated? What do they mean?
This sacred festival, known as a Gahanbar, is one of the few that is mentioned in the Avestan texts showing that Zoroastrians had been taking part in it since time immemorial.
All Gahanbars were originally one-day festivals marking the end of a season in the old Zoroastrian reckoning, exemplifying the faith’s worship of nature and its course. They later became 5 to 10-day celebrations with Hamaspathmaidyem (etymology unknown) being traditionally the longest at 10 days. It is a religious festival meant to celebrate us, humanity, and the creative activity of Ahura Mazda and the Amesha Spenta, particularly Spenta Mainyu, towards whom we are grateful for our existence.
It was originally celebrated on the day before Nowruz which in the Northern Hemisphere would be the day before the Spring Equinox meaning it would fall on March 19th or the 20th in the Gregorian calendar. The later celebration over a longer period led to the festival being broken in half by Charharshanbe Suri (see below) which marks the start of Frawardigan or the “Gathas Days”. These last five days Hamaspathmaidyem are only celebrated during the day.
Continuously celebrated in Iran and other Zoroastrian Persianate regions, Hamaspathmaidyem and other Gahanbars are experiencing a mild revival in celebration among Parsis. We know that these days were marked by feasting and community gatherings along with ritualization and prayer, all of which have continued as traditions for Hamaspathmaidyem.
Nowadays, especially in the Zoroastrian diaspora, the Gahanbars have fallen out of favor and, as such, Charharshanbe Suri (“Scarlet Wednesday”) is usually considered the “start” of Nowruz celebrations and takes place the Tuesday evening before the Wednesday preceding Nowruz.
As previously mentioned, its origins may have marked a mystical transition between the two halves of the Hamaspathmaidyem Gahanbar to provide a celebratory welcoming of the Fravashi and all other divinities welcomed during the Zoroastrian Holy Season.
Its name comes from the pervasive use of fire during the celebrations and central celebration of the coming of a bright new year at Nowruz with the ending of Winter. It is mostly celebrated by Iranian Zoroastrians and Zoroastrians in other Persianate regions and is only celebrated by a minority of Parsi Zoroastrians. Charharshanbe Suri celebrations are traditionally and wonderfully raucous involving constant fire jumping and bonfire making, costumed noise-making reminiscent of Euro-American traditions of trick-or-treating on Halloween, pot smashing rituals to ritually transfer misfortune to the pot to destroy it, romantic courting traditions involving precarious chimney ropes, eating large amounts of auspicious snacks and meals, and, of course, the burning of various things especially incense and rue seeds to ward off curses and malevolent entities.
While disputes have existed throughout the history of the faith as to the actual length of this holy festival, nowadays it is either celebrated concurrently with the Hamaspathmaidyem Gahanbar in the evenings or only on the last five days of the Gahanbar in the evenings.
Zoroastrianism is somewhat unique in its overlapping festivals and nowadays the contention as to the length of Frawardigan has been mostly pushed aside for community harmony amongst the Zoroastrian community worldwide.
Frawardigan is considered the time where the veil between the material and spiritual realms is as “thin” as it can be and, as such, it is reminiscent of Mexican celebrations of Day of the Dead with the celebratory welcoming of the holy Fravashis of family, friends, cultural heroes, religious saints, and so forth along with any other divinities. Most of the intensity of these celebrations take place the last five days before Nowruz which usually falls on the evenings of March 16th to the 20th on the Gregorian calendar. These days are usually known as the “Gatha Days” due to each day bearing the name of one of Zarathushtra’s Gathas where all Zoroastrians are encouraged to read, study, discuss, and contemplate each Gatha on its namesake day.
Amazing feasts, along with incense, flowers, and candles/fires, are set out for the Fravashi and other divinities to join the materially-living in feasting, comfort, and celebration. As has been commented on by theologians throughout the faith’s history, Zoroastrians are called to celebrate the dead and to not mourn due to either a strong belief in death being merely an illusion impeding a transition, or of mourning causing worry to the Fravashi of the deceased.
The last day of Frawardigan and Hamaspathmaidyem Gahanbar (thus usually March 20th on the Gregorian calendar), Pateti literally means “day of confession” and Zoroastrians are encouraged to spend some time of their day engaged in introspective meditation about the past year, especially in how they can better follow the Path of Asha. Though having fallen out of favor in some communities during modern times, it is nonetheless common to see Zoroastrians encouraging each other to reflect on their thoughts, words, and deeds during Pateti.
Practices on Pateti include constant prayer at home or fire temples, silent meditations on one’s actions throughout the year, and, if need be, apologies for previous missteps and harm caused with a commitment to remain, as best as possible, on the Path of Asha.
The most important day of the Zoroastrian calendar, this “new day” (the meaning of the word Nowruz) is a celebration of the year to come, the end of Winter, the renewal of our fraternal bonds as co-believers with each other, and love and adoration for Ahura Mazda and the Yazata.
Celebration of Nowruz can range from just one day (always the Spring Equinox so March 21st usually on the Gregorian calendar) to 12 or 14 days depending on whether one celebrated the end of Nowruz on Sizdahbedar or Chahardahbedar.
Nowruz is celebrated not just by Zoroastrians but also most of the Persianate world including relevant religions and the global diaspora. It is either associated with being founded by the mythical Shah Jamshid or Zarathushtra himself with academic opinion leaning towards a high likelihood of the latter answer following the speculations of the late Dr. Mary Boyce on the subject.
It is traditionally and universally considered by Zoroastrians to be the holiest day of the year and, as such, a time of great celebration, feasting, ritualization, and fellowship. Nowruz is celebrated with all things new: Clean house, clean self, new clothes, etc. along with, of course, lots of feasting, fire, ritual, and community gatherings. A recent practice of Haft-Sin (“Seven Things”) has developed where it is set up as a household altar containing items representative of the seven Amesha Spenta and the creations associated with them along with a mirror, sweets, flowers, a Zoroastrian book (usually the Gathas or the Khordeh Avesta), and sometimes even fish. Gifts are also exchanged, great fires are lit, and it is considered one of the most jovial times of the Zoroastrian year.
This day celebrates the birth of Zarathushtra and is on the 6th day of the month of Khordad (hence the name) which places it at around March 26th on the Gregorian calendar. While not as celebrated in the Zoroastrian diaspora, it is nonetheless still celebrated amongst Iranian and Indian Zoroastrians as a day of both remembrance and celebration of Zarathushtra and his life.
Some Zoroastrians consider this to be the final day or, at least, the beginning of the end for Nowruz celebrations and thus for the Zoroastrian holy season. Celebrations include feasting, prayers, reading of the Gathas and stories/myths of the life of Zarathushtra, and the making of resolutions especially to live an Ashavic life like that of Zarathushtra
Why is the Zoroastrian Holy Season important?
Zoroastrians can be prone to forgetting their holy days and festivals though, admittedly, we have a lot. Frequent debates about how “truly Zoroastrian” a holiday is, how something or another is not “historical” or “Gathaic” can distract from the beauty of our festivals and the true meaning of why we celebrate them.
The Zoroastrian Holy Season is a time to come together as a community to celebrate, reflect, pray, worship, honor, and live lives worthy of the blessings of Ahura Mazda, the Yazata, our ancestral Fravashis, and all other divinities.
It is the opinion of the author that the Zoroastrian Holy Season is the most important time of the year for a Zoroastrian and it should be taken seriously but part of that seriousness means engaging, as seen in the descriptions above, in alternating solemn pious activities and absolutely festive frivolity with each other. We are called to love and enjoy life and the material realm that we’re in so that our wonderful experiences are carried with us to enrich the spiritual realm and these days help us do that with one another. We are unique in that our holiest season is not one of endless mourning or scriptural fear or even of ascetic practice but rather of fun, feasting, and contemplation with each other as a global community of Ashavans. Together, as Ashavans, let us welcome the “New Day” and the new year, along with the glorious Fravashi, and toast to a better life, a stronger, diverse, and growing Zoroastrian community, and to the continuing perfection and care of our beautiful world.