WATERTOWN, Mass. (RNS) A few dozen people huddled outside a hall in 23-degree temperatures Tuesday (March 18) to eat a traditional Iranian soup called “ash” and jump over a line of several small fires as part of a 3,000-year-old Festival of Fire ritual rooted in Zoroastrianism.
According to tradition, by leaping over fire, revelers jettison their old pallor and misbegotten ways and pick up warmth and light from the flames. The ritual is part of the buildup to the Persian New Year, known as Naw-Ruz, which begins Thursday (March 20).
The holiday marking the vernal equinox is steeped in springtime symbols of rebirth and renewal. This year it holds special meaning for Iranian-Americans, who in recent months have witnessed a historic, if slow, thaw in relations between their native and adopted countries.
“We all have friends and relatives who visit here, and everyone says people are more hopeful this Naw-Ruz,” said Hamid Esbah, a 46-year-old maxillofacial surgeon in Boston who left his hometown of Tehran when he was 14. “They say that things feel different.”
Many Iranian-Americans say that they have long tired of being seen only in the context of Islam and that religion, while important to many Iranians, isn’t as dominant as the media make it appear.
Naw-Ruz is rooted in Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the prophet Zoroaster in the sixth century B.C. in what is present-day Iran. The faith was practiced in ancient Persia, which stretched from parts of Afghanistan and India to North Africa and Turkey.
Today, there are an estimated 200,000 to 2 million Zoroastrians worldwide, including several communities in the United States that, despite their small numbers, still wholeheartedly celebrate Naw-Ruz.
“Naw-Ruz is very much thriving, no question,” said Shahrokh Mehta, a spokesman for the Zoroastrian Association of the Greater Boston Area. Zoroastrians will observe Naw-Ruz at home Thursday and will come together Saturday to celebrate with their communities.
Naw-Ruz is celebrated to varying degrees in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Albania and several other countries, but nowhere more passionately than in Iran, where schools and businesses close for two weeks, in ways similar to the Christmas celebrations in America and Europe.
While Iranian-Americans can’t afford two weeks off from work, they keep some traditions alive. One of the most important is the “Haft Seen Table,” or “Table of Seven S’s,” decorated with items symbolizing spring. These include wheat, barley or lentil sprouts (sabzeh), symbolizing rebirth; dried oleaster fruit (senjed), for love; sweet pudding (samanu), for affluence; sumac powder (samaq), for sunrise; apples (sib), for beauty and health; garlic (sir), for medicine; and vinegar (serkeh), for old age and patience.
Other items often found on Haft Seen Tables include painted eggs, representing fertility; a mirror, representing truth; candles, representing enlightenment; and books, such as the Quran or poems by the Persian poet Hafiz.
Families cook traditional Naw-Ruz meals packed with green herbs symbolizing spring, and on the 13th day, cast the old herbs into a river, symbolizing the return of the plant to nature and a new journey.
After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the new Islamic government tried to prohibit the Festival of Fire — some say the government cited safety and others say the practice was un-Islamic — but the tradition proved too popular and too difficult to eradicate.
While mostly a secular holiday, Naw-Ruz has managed to encourage pluralism in Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shiite but also includes Christians, Baha’is, Zoroastrians and others.
This year and in years past, Esbah said, he exchanged Naw-Ruz greetings with friends who are Jewish, Armenian Christian and Zoroastrian.
“One of the most important beauties of Naw-Ruz is that it is celebrated by all people of different faiths, cultures and languages in Iran and outside of Iran,” said Yassaman Jalali, author of the children’s book “Celebrating Norouz: Persian New Year.”
“It is very much based on rebirth and renewal of nature and of the earth, so it has been easily accepted and has become a unifying symbol for everyone.”
Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American comedian, celebrated Naw-Ruz as a kid in Iran and later growing up in Marin County, and he still celebrates it if he’s not touring.
Jobrani said he is “skeptically positive” that U.S.-Iranian relations will improve and hopes that translates into improved civil and human rights in Iran.
“Like a lot of other Iranians, “ he said, “I’d like to be able to go back and visit without worrying about some ministry arbitrarily deciding to put you in handcuffs and throw you in jail just because they felt like it.”
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