Solstices & Equinoxes, and the Persian tradition
There are four special occasions during a year — two equinoxes and two solstices — that have astronomical significance and they mark the beginning of the four seasons. But they also have cultural significance among certain people and cultures of the world such as Persians.
An equinox occurs when the length of the day and night is equal. More technically, the tilt of the earth with respect to sun is at its minimum at an equinox. Vernal equinox occurs on March 20 or 21, and it marks the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere of earth and the beginning of Fall in the southern hemisphere. The autumnal equinox occurs on September 22 or 23 and it marks the beginning of Fall and Spring in the northern and southern hemispheres respectively.
A solstice is the opposite of equinox in the sense that the earth is at its highest tilt away or towards the sun. The summer solstice occurs on June 21 or 22 and marks the beginning of Summer in the northern hemisphere, and the beginning of Winter in the southern hemisphere. The winter solstice occurs on December 21 or 22 and marks the beginning of Winter in the Northern hemisphere and the beginning of Summer in the southern hemisphere.
Persian celebrations of equinoxes & solstices
In the pre-Islamic Persian culture the equinoxes and solstices were very special occasions and times of elaborate festivities, most of which are still observed and celebrated by most Iranians around the world, though some in smaller scales. These celebrations have their roots in the ancient religions of Iran such as Zoroastrianism and Mitraism. But unlike certain special times on the Islamic calendar, they are not for the mourning of the dead. Rather they are all joyful times for the celebration of light and love, often signifying the birth of light and goodness, and its defeat of darkness and evil.
With the invasion of Arabs and introduction of Islam in the Persian empire 14 centuries ago, some of these customs lost their significance. And over the last 30 years the Islamic regime of Iran has often attempted to marginalize these festivals though with little success. Today these customs survive and are observed and celebrated, possibly with even more fervor among Iranian expatriates abroad (especially in areas with high Iranian immigrant population such as California) than they are back home in Iran.
Here I take a cursory look at these customs with links to more detail and history (primarily from Wikipedia), in the hope that the younger generation of Iranians as well as my non-Iranian readers learn about these special customs and gain an appreciation for the richness of our culture.
The most significant of these occasions is Nowruz, the Persian new year, which occurs during the vernal equinox. Nowruz is the largest Persian celebration with many traditions and elaborate customs that spans about two weeks. The festivities start with Chaharshanbe-suri, or the festival of fire, the celebration of the last Wednesday of the year in which people typically jump over fire. An elaborate table called Haft-sin containing special items, is set up for the entire duration of the Nowruz celebration. The start of the new year which is the actual moment when Spring starts (a different time every year) is the climax of the celebrations. And the festivities concludes with Sizdah-bedar, the 13th day of the new year which is celebrated with an all-out picnic. Nowruz which literally means new day has Zoroastrian roots and marks the rebirth of the earth and a renewed cycle of life. Nowruz is also celebrated in certain other parts of Asia.
Mehregan or the festival of Autumn occurs during autumnal equinox. It also has Zoroastrian roots and was created to honor “mehr” (friendship and love). Mehregan also is a celebration of the harvest. Though Mehregan is not as big a celebration as Nowruz, especially in Iran, it is observed and celebrated by certain Iranian organizations around the world. In particular, Persian non-profit organizations Payvand in northern California and NIPOC in southern California celebrate Mehregan in a 2-day long festival with Persian music, dance, art and craft and more. Here is more on the history of Mehregan. I believe Mehregan is observed and celebrated more elaborately in California than it is back home.
Winter equinox is equivalent to Yalda, the celebration of the longest night of the year. The roots of this ancient tradition go back to Mitrasim religion which believed the morning following Yalda night to be the birthday of Mitra the god of light. Yalda typically is celebrated with close friends and family staying up late and eating fresh fruits such as watermelon and pomegranate, nuts, and reading Persian poetry. Similar to Mehregan, Yalda is also celebrated in various Persian community with organized events and programs abroad especially in California. For more on Yalda, see this article from The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.
Equinoxes & Solstices in Christianity
According to some references, the equinoxes and solstices have also been celebrated in the non-Persian world and in fact were adopted by the church to become four important occasions in Christianity:
- Autumn Equinox with Michaelmas, the Mass or Feast of St. Michael
- Winter Solstice with Christ Mass or Christmas
- Spring Equinox with Easter
- Summer Solstice with Feast of St. John and Pentecost (Whitsuntide or the Ascension)
Equinoxes & Solstices in Spirituality
The equinoxes and solstices also have significance in spirituality. According to certain sources, these are among the times when one has the most access to “power” because of the alignment of the earth, sun, moon, etc. For example an equinox is a time of balance and may be a good time to stabilize or move forward. This is generally not a view I believe in and know much about, but I find it interesting and worth a mention here.
As I am writing this, we are about a day away from the start of the new year, 2011, yet another special time of the year. May you experience special equinox- and solstice- like occasions filled with joy and love throughout this new year. May we have access to powers to create positive change and work towards peace and prosperity for all the people of earth.
For more on ancient Persian tradition and costumes please refer to the Encyclopedia Iraniaca, the most comprehensive encyclopedia on Iran. Wikipedia also has extensive information on the history of these occasions.
Niloufar Talebi, an Iranian artist, created and performed a beautiful theatrical show, The Persian Right of Spring, last year in LA, where she tells the story of these ancient Persian festivals and celebrations in spoken word, poetry and live music. DVDs of this show are available from its site above.