The Zoroastrian Celebration at Autumnal Equinox in Iran and the region since Antiquity.

Untitled5It was during the mid-60s in Iran, that the Afshid (sunbeam) primary school yard overflowed with hundreds of playful, nutty, and noisy K-6 students. They were quieted when the custodian rang the shiny brass bell that hung on the school’s front porch. The boys and girls of each grade lined up, left-to-right, by height. The boys’ haircuts were short and the girls’ hair was tied back as a pony tail. Nails were clipped and all hygiene requirements met. Each student wore their best outfit, on which a white circular patch of cloth was sewn onto their jacket collar. Everyone carried a segmented, compressible red, white, and green (colors of the Iranian flag) plastic cup for drinking water; a handkerchief and snacks were stuffed inside. It is Mehr 1st, the beginning of autumn, Jashn Mehrgān. The National Anthem and sorud amouzgar (the teacher’s appreciation song) were sung by the students, who were accompanied by the chirping of migratory birds winging south. The song was followed by the principal and the PTA chair’s welcoming statements to everyone on the first day of the academic year—the first day of school is on the autumnal solstice, Mehrgān, the festival of friendship, compassion and love in honor of Mitra/Mehr.

School days were Saturday through Thursday and began at 8:30 and ended at 4:00, with a two-hour lunch break. Thursdays were most pleasing as we went home at noon to start our one and a half day weekend! It should be noted that Nowruz, observed at the spring vernal equinox, has and will remain the most revered annual celebration in Iran. Mehrgān is, in essence, the mirror image of Nowruz in that night and day are each 12 hours long. The other major celebrations in Iran are Tirgan and Daygan (the summer and winter solstices, respectively) and Sadeh (fifty nights and days before Nowruz).

Historically speaking, Mehrgān along with the three other seasonal celebrations of Nowruz, Tirgan and Daygan, are celebrated when the name of month coincides with the same name of the day. Summer harvest, after which the farmers till and sow their fields for the following spring calls for Mehrgān. It is the time to prepare for the harsh winter ahead by preserving foods, drying fruits and nuts, preserving pickles, and other essentials. It also signals the last opportunity to pick mid-fall fruits and nuts, such as persimmons, pomegranates, medlars, quince, almonds, and walnuts. It was as if the trees were programmed to the exact second to change their leaves’ colors, drop them, and be carried on the fall wind. After months of dry weather, Mehrgān also signaled the start of fall’s periodical rains, the essential component of germinations and cyclical rebirth that would arrive amid Nowruz. Mehrgān was originally a feast held to honor the Persian Goddess Mithra, until the 4th century BCE, when it became one of the two and, later, four most revered Zoroastrian feasts. Mehrgān was celebrated in an extravagant style at Persepolis. Not only was it the time for concluding the harvests, it was also when the semi-annual taxes were collected. Visitors from different parts of the Persian Empire brought gifts to the King at Persepolis, Takhte Jamshid (the Throne of Jamshid), when all partook in an extravagant festival.

During the 7th century, Mehrgān was celebrated the same as Nowruz. There were even some efforts to elevate Mehrgān over Nowruz as the most revered Persian New Year. It remained customary for people to send presents to the King and to each other at Mehrgān. Rich people usually gave gold and silver coins; heroes and warriors gave horses, swords, and javelins; while commoners gave gifts according to their financial means—apples, persimmons, and pomegranates were acceptable gifts. Those fortunate enough would help the poor with donations and goods as gifts, as they also did at Nowruz and other celestial celebrations.

The Mehrgān spread table (Dusharm, Dream of Persia)
The Mehrgān spread table (Dusharm, Dream of Persia)
Although Mehrgān is not as elaborately celebrated in Iran as Nowruz, people still wear new wintry clothes when visiting each other. Similar to Haft-seen at Nowruz, the sides of the tablecloth at Mehrgān are decorated with dry, wild marjoram. A copy of the Khordeh Avesta (the “abridged” Avesta), a mirror, and a sormeh-dan (a traditional eyeliner or kohl) are placed on the table with rosewater, sweets, flowers, vegetables, dried wheat/barley husks, fall fruits (especially pomegranates and apples), and nuts, such as, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios. A few silver coins and lotus seeds are also placed in a water bowl scented with a marjoram elixir. A small brazier is placed on the table where kondor/loban (frankincense) and espand (Syrian Rue seeds) are burned to ward off evil forces.

At the autumnal equinox or the closest lunch time to when the ceremony begins, everyone in the family gathers in front of the mirror to hymn pray. Sherbet is drunk and then—as an omen—sormeh mascara is applied to lengthen the eyelashes. Handfuls of wild marjoram, lotus, and sugar plum seeds are thrown over one another’s heads while they embrace. In the 1960s, the Iranian Royal Postal Service issued a series of stamps to commemorate Mehrgān Festival.

Returning to school’s first days: as we played in our yard and neighborhood, we witnessed the many birds migrating south—presumably from north of the Caspian Sea and from Russian Siberia—toward the warm waters of the Persian Gulf for the winter. Among them, the good omen storks and cranes were particularly fascinating as they came back to the same nests on high trees, buildings, or the cliff edges. After the harvesting and seeding were completed we, who lived in the suburbs, were excited that our country relatives would visit us soon; especially, our grandparents who often stayed for extended visits. They brought us fresh and dried fruits, mixed nuts (Ajil), and dried, pitted apricots or peaches with crushed walnuts and a bit of sugar inside and threaded as a necklace (Joze-ghand). The preserved lamb meat cooked in its own fat called ghormeh, from which we made abgoosht, the legume lamb stew, was such a delicious winter delicacy! And, as to my grandfather’s grape syrup, shireh angoor, we could not wait for the first snow to make barf shireh ices and eat them under a korsi warmed by a brazier refilled daily with charcoal. Another country gift was the trapezoid-shaped threaded dried rue (espand) and frankincense that we hung over the front door, presumably to ward off evil spirits! I vividly recall my first day at school, it was the afternoon of Mehr 1 and I was six. Under the watchful eye of my grandmother, Maryam, I struggled to crack open an almond with a rock. Missing the almond, I smashed my thumb with the rock. Six months later, on Nowruz, my blackened nail fell off and was replaced with a brand new nail! Was this a fortuitous sign of rebirth and rejuvenation?

Mehrgān also serves as a transitory juncture of retrospections for the preceding and following six months, introspection for the early fall, and prospection—with trepidations and anticipations—for what we can expect during the six months to Nowruz. During that time of reflection we enjoyed crushing colorful autumn leaves as we walked through the long, narrow, a tall mud-walled garden alleys in Evin remains among our most nostalgic memories. I shall revere the intoxicating, mixed aromas of mud, rain, leaves, and smashed fruits for as long as I live; it gives me a soothing sense of somber solitude, which I have never experienced anywhere else.

Mehrgān, Nowruz along with Tigran and Dayan are celebrated worldwide including here in diaspora. The IZA and ZAGNY at Dare e Mehr proudly host such celebrations; annual extravagantly held Mehrgān festival, this year with Sattar as the singer, is held at the Persian Untermeyer Garden in Yonkers NY, where the seats are sold from 15,000 to a modest $500 ! As to those of us fortunate enough to have been born and raised in Iran where the national festivals as Mehrgān and Nowruz have and continue to remain intertwined with our psyche and, as we breathed, inhaled, smelled, ingested, and felt these festivities on our skin, in our flesh and bone and enjoyed them immensely, the same celebration in diaspora can only go so far. Then again, that should not mean we give up these annual rituals, but, instead, we should create little Irans or Gujarats in our communities to ensure our children learn and carry on these spiritual reconnections with Mother Nature.

Cover photo: The Mehrgān table at the Persian school, operated by the Iranian American Society of New York (2011)

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