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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.