By Heidi Noroozy
|Jashneh Sadeh celebration in Tehran|
Credit: Farzad J
It’s Christmas Eve and for many people around the world, tomorrow marks the highlight of one of the year’s most festive seasons. With so much holiday cheer to go around, it may be hard to imagine a time when all you want is for spring flowers to replace winter’s snow and for Jack Frost to go nipping at someone else’s nose.
But the winter blues are just around the corner. You can count on it.
The ancient Persians had a remedy for the cabin fever that sets in around the middle of the cold season. They banished the blues with a festival called Jashneh Sadeh, or Celebration of the 100 Days, held on the tenth day of the Iranian month of Bahman, which coincides with January 30 on the Gregorian calendar.
The festival derives its name from the fact that it falls just 50 days and 50 nights before Eid-e Norooz, the Persian New Year festival that marks the first day of spring. I’ve written about that festival in this space before. You can find the post here.
According to Persian legend, the mythological King Hushang established Jashneh Sadeh after a hike in the mountains, where he encountered a poisonous snake and tried to kill it with a stone. But his aim was off and instead of hitting the serpent, the stone struck another rock. A spark flew up and ignited dry underbrush. King Hushang had discovered the art of lighting a fire.
The Zoroastrians took up the tradition and celebrated Jashneh Sadeh as a fire festival. They believed that a bonfire built in midwinter defeated the demons of frost and cold, who turned water to ice and destroyed the roots of life-giving plants. The fire was often built near water or in the temple of Mehr, the guardian of the sun.
Before lighting the bonfire, priests recited the Atash Niayesh, prayers associated with fire. They ignited the sacred flame at sunset and allowed it to burn all night, while the people sang, danced, and feasted through the night. In the morning, women lit torches from the ritual blaze, brought them to their own hearths and built new fires from the one blessed by the priests, spreading the spirit of Jashneh Sadeh throughout the community.
The preparations began the day before the festival, when teenage boys and adult men headed to the mountains to gather wood, a rare resource in the arid parts of Iran. In modern times, with wood even scarcer, the boys (and sometimes girls) go door to door collecting whatever wood they can find, from broken furniture to branches trimmed from backyard fruit trees. They chant the words: “Give me a branch and God will grant you a wish. Refuse me a branch and God will deny your wish.” Sound a bit like trick or treat?
The winter solstice on December 21 may be the longest night of the year, but Iranians consider the night of Jashneh Sadeh to be the coldest. The tenth of Bahman marks the turning point of winter, and the weather will get warmer as spring approaches.
Zoroastrians around the world still celebrate this mid-winter festival as a religious rite. But many secular Iranians have adopted it as a way to connect with their ancient past. For some, the holiday is a time for slaughtering a ritual lamb and sharing food with the poor. I can’t think of a better way to chase away the winter blues.