The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution has changed the name of two ancient Iranian festivals, Shab-e Yalda (Yalda Night), and Chaharshanbeh Suri (Festival of Fire) in its calendar for the next Iranian year starting on March 20, 2024.
What is the Islamic Republic government after? Is this part of an effort to destroy Iranian national symbols? Would it succeed in robbing Iranians of their ancient national festivals?
IranWire asked these questions to Ali Akbar Mahdi, a sociologist and professor at California State University, and Iman Moslemipour, a scholar of ancient Iranian culture and languages.
Yalda Night is marked by Iranians on the winter solstice. For thousands of years, they have celebrated that day the victory of light over darkness by gathering in the homes of family elders where they sit around a table adorned with an array of symbolic objects and foods: a lamp symbolizing light, water representing cleanliness, and red fruits such as pomegranates and watermelons to symbolize warmth. They recite poetry, tell stories, play games and music, and give gifts to new in-laws, brides and children.
Chaharshanbeh Suri, or the “Red Wednesday” in English, is a fire festival on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Iranian year when bonfires are lit in public places, people jump over them and make wishes.
Both have been extremely joyous occasions for Iranians since ancient times but, of course, not so much now. Spreading poverty has robbed Iranians of the will and the means of celebrating, while the Islamic Republic has tried to prevent these national festivals and, failing that, attempted to change the Iranian cultural identity.
The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which is under the supervision of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, announced on November 12 that, starting the next Iranian year, Yalda Night will be officially known as the “day to promote the culture of gathering and bonding with kins” and Chaharshanbeh Suri as the “day to venerate neighbors.”
All nations in the world have their own celebrations and festivals. The roots of many of them go back thousands of years. Nowruz, the Iranian new year holiday, is celebrated not only in Iran, but also in Afghanistan, the countries of the Caucasus such as Azerbaijan, Tajikistan in Central Asia, as well as the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iraq.
Festivals such as Bonfire Night, similar to the Iranian Chaharshanbeh Suri, are held in Northern European countries including Denmark, Germany and particularly Britain, in Commonwealth countries and even in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Saint Patrick's Day is celebrated in early spring by citizens of Irish ancestry in the US and Canada, followed by Easter which is celebrated in many Christian countries in April.
It might seem that most of these celebratory occasions have Christian roots, but many historians and scholars of religion believe their origins go back to ancient history.
In Iran, since the Shia clergy grabbed power in 1979, the government’s efforts to change the meaning and the cultural identity of Iranian national festivities and ceremonies have continued nonstop. Ruhollah Khomeini himself and his successor Khamenei tried to alter the celebration of Nowruz by issuing religious and political messages, Chaharshanbeh Suri was called “the last Wednesday of the year” in government-affiliated media, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attempted to extend Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that ends Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, to more days and to make it the main Iranian holiday.
The response of the Iranian people, however, has not been what the Islamic Republic leaders have hoped for. As a recent study by the Quarterly of Strategic Studies of Culture, a publication financed by the Islamic Republic itself, shows, most Iranians avoid observing and celebrating religious and revolutionary occasions and, instead, eagerly celebrate national ones.
What Does History Say?
“Mythologies and, consequently, the ceremonies are born from what humans need and they are updated as time goes by and the civilization and the environment changes,” Iman Moslemipour, a political activist and scholar of ancient Iranian languages and religions, tells IranWire. “Generally, the original reasons for these ceremonies are forgotten but the ceremonies themselves continue in the same form or with some changes.”
According to Moslemipour, all these festivals were rituals of adulation. In the case of Chaharshanbeh Suri, the oldest source that we have is a Zoroastrian ritual. Originally, it was a ceremony performed during the last five days of the year when “people lit fire indoors and outdoors to guide the spirits of the dead to visit their loved ones.”
“Parts of this festival no longer match the original rites, including jumping over the fire, because fire was considered sacred but other elements such as gathering material for fire have remained as a tradition in parts of Iran.”
Yalda Night, says Moslemipour, has two aspects. One is preparation for defeating the Demon of Cold and the victory of Sun God and the other is the birth of Mithra, an ancient Iranian deity.
Moslemipour emphasizes that historical developments and the rule of non-Iranians over Iran have failed to eclipse these festivals as a whole, even though “of course, some ceremonies have been forgotten and others have changed in form or in content” as a result of antagonism by the governments and the clergy and changes in the ethnic landscape.
“Giving absurd name to these occasions, inconsistent with Iranian rituals, by a governing institution, along with the removal of national symbols at various places and occasions such as Nowruz is a deliberate act,” Moslemipour says, adding that it is also an attempt to distract people from the real issues that they have to deal with and to stop them from pursuing their legitimate demands. "Whatever it is, the risk of damage to national rituals and, as a result, the destruction of cultural identity is very worrisome."
Entering Through the Window Instead of the Door
Ali Akbar Mahdi, professor at California State University, believes that these name changes are a continuation of the Islamic Republic’s policy of “integralism” to transform Iran as a “pure” Shia society, not only in law but also in culture: “The Islamic Republic is a theocracy that relies on a kind of religious universalism. Throughout the years, it has tried to transform every aspect of Iranian society, making it wholly Islamic but also Shia, and not only Shia but a specific concept of Shi’ism that the ruling Shia clergy has in mind.
“The Islamic Republic started the process of fighting against national symbols from the very beginning and stood up against the people of Iran. However, when people resisted, it tried to push its goal of making every aspect of society conform to Shi’ism by overshadowing various manifestations of Iranian national culture.
“However, their previous efforts to annihilate Nowruz and other cultural symbols of Iranian society proved ineffective, so they are now using a new method. In this method, they do not enter through the door but through the window, meaning that they did not ban Yalda but renamed it to place a name without content in the historical mind of Iranian people.”
Will They Succeed?
Most Iranian people and ethnic groups, from east to west and from north to south, celebrate Yalda Night, Chaharshanbeh Suri and Nowruz. In recent years, despite the government’s pressure to downgrade these festivities and to replace them with new concepts, people’s efforts to mark these days and occasions have increased. In fact, in many cases, people have used these festivities to stand up against the government.
They have used Haftsin, an arrangement of seven symbolic items to celebrate Nowruz, and the table for Yalda Night snacks to display pictures of the victims of the nationwide protests that rocked the country last year. They hold poetry recitation sessions to support the protesters’ ideals and, on Chaharshanbeh Suri, they shout slogans against the Islamic Republic in the streets and on their rooftops. In other words, they have changed these festivities into occasions for standing up against the government.
Ali Akbar Mahdi says that he does believe that the government will be successful, “but its latest move, meaning entering slowly through the window to inject new concepts into these national festivities, rituals and symbols might gradually lead to historical amnesia.”
“If they retain power, they might inflict amnesia on the society but I don’t believe they would succeed, and they have not been successful so far because a success based on coercion cannot last.”
Moslemipour points out that in an era of easy access to information, the current efforts by the Islamic Republic cannot succeed in the short term. “However, the continuation of this process will definitely cause significant damage to the people and, as a result, to the government itself,” he adds. “The government's attempts to eliminate national occasions and ideas under the pretext of ideology or political goals can only lead to war against Iranians themselves.”
Ali Akbar Mahdi believes that the Islamic Republic cannot survive without the support of the Iranian people and that is why it is after “purification,” a term used in Iranian political jargon to describe the actions by radical rightists, a group that increasingly tries to homogenize the three branches of government, the military and security institutions.
The term “purification” was first used during the presidential election of 2021 by Mehdi Taeb, a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who declared: “Today, we have reached the purification phase of the revolution and we shall undoubtedly emerge victorious.”
“Without Iran the regime cannot exist,” says Ali Akbar Mahdi. “They imagine that they can continue their rule and control the people by deceiving them. They want to force people to become what they themselves want, but this works against them when it goes against the historical, cultural and national wishes of the people.”
“It is going to be costly for the country. Iran might remain a prisoner of an unwanted regime for years or decades but, in the long run, people will find their own roots and the historical choices that they have made, choices such as Nowruz.”