Festivals and celebrations

How, for Zoroastrians, New Year comes on the first day of spring

By far the most important occasion in the Zoroastrian calendar is the celebration of Nowruz, the first day of spring and the beginning of the New Year.

It occurs at the moment of the spring equinox and it is indeed a sweet and meaningful time when life truly returns afresh after the darkness and gloom of the winter months.

Flowers are in bud, or blooming once again, while birds are building their nests and sheep are producing lambs.

It makes complete sense for the New Year to begin at this moment and so the festival marks the first day of the first month of the year. The Iranian calendar follows this solar system even thought there have been periods of Iranian history when the Islamic lunar month system with Arabic names was used.

I have always felt very moved by the rituals that we perform to commemorate the arrival of Nowruz and I retain almost magical/sacred memories from childhood of my parents chanting prayers and then congratulating family members with the arrival of the equinox with rose water, a symbolic coin in the hand and sweets in the mouth run deep.

We still do this. And before this moment, on the day of the equinox we prepare a special ceremonial table which we call the Haft Shin Table (the 7 “Sh” table) which is a display of 7 items which represents God’s creation of life sustaining/enhancing items: evergreens and wheat/lentil shoots to represent the importance of plant life, bread, cheese and milk to represent the relationship with animals, wine to represent merriment and also medicinal use, sweets to represent happiness, rosewater to represent happiness and fragrance, spring flowers such as a hyacinth or narcissi which are both beautiful and fragrant and we also have coins to represent prosperity. The table will also have a copy of our prayer book, the Avesta, with a green cover. It is a table that has a high aesthetic appeal which is possibly why it has such a deep resonance.

In anticipation of the arrival of Nowruz, on the nearest preceding Wednesday evening, bonfires are made and people jump over the fire joyously, presumably a throwback reference to the importance of fire in the religious culture. This celebration is known as Chahar Shanbeh Soori.

The end of the 13 days of celebration is known as Sizdah beh Dar which means the 13th outside. On this day everyone is supposed to spend the day in a local beauty spot or park with family or friends enjoying a picnic and on this day the Nowruz table is dismantled and the wheat shoots are thrown into a stream. Some people will knot tufts of grass while reciting a traditional couplet. After this the holiday period is over.

It is not only Zoroastrians who still celebrate Nowruz but all Iranian peoples which include Kurds, Tajiks and Afghans, i.e. those who once were part of Greater Iran, the territory of Iranian peoples which formed part of the empire, (during the 3 periods when the Achaemenians, the Parthians and the Sassanians ruled) where the languages spoken are of the Iranian language group and where the Nowruz table in some shape or form is still prepared. It should be said that Iranian non-Zoroastrians prepare a Haft Sin (7 “S”) table and these days so enthusiastically celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Soori that the present regime has tried to suppress these activities as indeed they tried to suppress Nowruz which has coincided with Ashura – an annual Shia Muslim mourning period.

Zoroastrians also have festivals of water in mid-summer (Tirgan), of harvest in mid September which coincides with the autumn equinox (Mehrgan) of fire (Sadeh) 50 days before Nowruz and also celebrate the longest night on December 21st (Shab e Yalda = Yule?)when once again the days start to become longer. This coincides with the Mithraic festival celebrating the return of the sun which the Romans knew as Dies Natalis Solis Invictae which may explain the choice of December 25th to mark the birth of Christ.

All these festivals are marked with a jashan or prayers led by a priest with an urn of fire being stoked with incense, myrrh and sandal wood. Wine is drunk and food is consumed as a community, and often dancing and music will spontaneously break out. One of the popular pastimes, is to tell fortunes in a light hearted fashion selecting at random verses from the verses of Hafez.

The Zoroastrian calendar of 12 months x 30 days with 5 intercalary days attributes a different name from the attributes of God, or the natural world to each month and also to each day of the 30 days, rather than having 7 days of the week x 4., thus one day may be called, wind, fire, water, earth, animal, etc. When a month and a day have the same name there is a further festival known as the –Gan festivals.

There are also 6 annual 5 day periods when endowed feasts in memory of deceased members of the family are held and known as Gahambar. It is considered an act of piety to leave a sum of money or land to pay for a memorial feast each year after death. All members of the community are expected to participate in these as the priests go round to each household in which these feasts have been endowed and after saying prayers and pronouncing the names of the deceased in the family, hand out dried fruit and nuts, and bread, if not pounded lamb, coriander and chick peas. It is thought that if everyone participates, then the needy will benefit from the handouts without feeling embarrassed while those who do not need to take much will refrain from doing so. There is a great sense of excitement and fun for children particularly when these periods approach as they know they will be able to replenish their stores of goodies to sustain them till the next feast.

In the contemporary context of modernity and diaspora, these circuits around family homes have generally been replaced by feasts in the community halls of different Zoroastrian centres.

As should be clear, the Zoroastrian calendar is punctuated with occasions which allow community members to get together to express solidarity and to enjoy a bit of music and dancing which is very popular along with food and often some home made wine which has traditionally been an expertise of Zoroastrians.

Shahin Bakhradnia is the grand daughter of a renown Yazdi priest/poet of 19th century. She grew up in England, and has published and lectured on Zoroastrianism.
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA