Zoroastrian Festivals and Observances
Zoroastrian religious observances can be divided into seasonal, monthly and annual festivals. Communities generally celebrate these events austerely, without pomp, in homes and temples.
The six Gahambar festivals and Nowruz (Persian New Year) form the seven feasts of obligation, which it is considered sinful not to observe. Observance of other festivals is a merit and not mandatory. Festivals can fall on different days, depending on which of three calendars is used. Persian Zoroastrians follow the Qadīmī (or Kadmī) calendar and Parsis (Zoroastrians in India) use the Shahenshai calendar, which is a month longer. In the early 20th century, some Parsis adopted the Faṣlī (Gregorian) calendar, with a fixed Nowruz on March 21.
Zoroastrians celebrate six seasonal festivals that commemorate the six universal creations of God and reaffirm the sanctity of creation. During each Gahambar’s five days, the five material creations are honored: earth, water, plants, animals and humans. Celebrants spend the first four days reciting scriptures and come together on the fifth day for a feast.
The six Gahambars are:
Maidyozarem. The year’s first Gahambar, Maidyozarem is the mid-spring festival, observed from the 41st to 45th days of the Zoroastrian year (usually April 30 to May 4). This festival is associated with heaven and creation of the stars and the fire of the universe.
Maidyoi-shema. Celebrating midsummer, Maidyoi-shema is observed on the 101st to 105th days on the calendar, typically June 29 to July 3. Maidyoi-shema is associated with the creation of water as the newly created universe began cooling.
Paitishahema. The third Gahambar, Paitishahem is associated with the creation of earth and the bringing home of the fall harvest. It takes place on the 176th to 180th days of the year (generally September 12 to 16).
Ayathrem. Associated with vegetation, which is considered to be the first sign of life after creation, Gahambar Ayathrem marks the return of cattle herds from grazing in faraway lands. Zoroastrians celebrate the fourth Gahambar on the 206th to 210th days, usually October 12 to 16.
Maidyarem. The midwinter festival and fifth Gahambar, Maidyarem is associated with the evolution of animals. It is celebrated on the 286th through 290th days of the Zoroastrian year, typically December 31 to January 4.
Hamaspathmaidyem. The Festival of All Souls, the last Gahambar falls on the 361st to 365th days (March 16 to 20) and marks the vernal equinox. Hamaspathmaidyem is associated with the evolution of humankind on the earth.
Fravardeghan Days (Muktad)
Zoroastrians following the Shahenshai calendar observe Fravardeghan Days (Muktad) during the last 10 days of the religious year, in preparation for Nowruz, New Year’s Day. During these holy days, it’s believed that the fravashis (spirits) of the righteous departed come back to Earth, and Zoroastrians welcome and honor them with special rituals and offerings.
Families dress in white and cover their heads before visiting the fire temple daily. Each of their departed ancestors has a silver or copper vase, refilled daily with fresh water, where the departed are believed to reside during their stay. The families offer rose and other flowers, fruit, and vegetarian food, while priests recite prayers and burn sandalwood and incense.
Nowruz (also spelled Nouruz, Naw-ruz or Norooz)—the Persian New Year—is celebrated by several faiths and is one of the most important holy days for Zoroastrians, especially those in India (Parsis). According to the Fasli calendar, which follows the seasons, Nowruz falls on March 21; some Parsis follow the Shahenshai or Kadami (Qadmi) calendars, which celebrate the spring equinox as Jamshed-i-Nouroz and the actual New Year Day in July or August.
In Zoroastrianism, God symbolizes light and life. Nowruz is a celebration of God and the creation that is an extension of Himself: the spiritual and material world, and the elements of earth, sky, water, air, plants and animals. In preparation for the New Year, believers clean and decorate their homes. On Nowruz, wearing new outfits, they visit the Fire Temple, offer prayers, spend the day in Jashn, or worship, visit relatives and friends, and enjoy special foods and symbolic rituals.
Khordad Sal, celebrating the birth of the Prophet Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), is another important event for Zoroastrians, especially Parsis. Also called Greater Nowruz, it is celebrated six days after Nowruz. As family and community are core values of the faith, it’s an occasion that brings families and friends together from afar. Celebrants decorate their homes with flowers and their entryways or floors with Rangoli, designs made with brightly colored powder. After offering prayers at the Fire Temple, families visit friends and feast together. It’s an occasion for believers to pray for those who aren’t able to join them, reflect on their lives, and make resolutions for the future.
Mehregan, the Persian Festival of Autumn, honors Mehr (or Mithra/Mitra), the goddess of light, friendship, love and kindness. A reminder of the “good words, good deeds and good thoughts” of Zoroastrianism, Mehregan also celebrates the fall harvest and abundance. The festival takes place at the start of autumn, on the 10th day of the month of Mehr (usually the second week in October).
Zoroastrians wear new clothes for the occasion and set up a ceremonial table. On the table are the Khordeh Avesta (a book of prayers), a mirror, and a sormeh dan (container of kohl eyeliner), along with flowers, vegetables and fruits, rosewater, sweets, nuts, and incense. At lunchtime, family members stand in front of the mirror to pray. After drinking sherbet, everyone rubs kohl around their eyes as a good omen and embraces while tossing wild marjoram, lotus and sugar plum seeds over each other’s heads. In the evening, celebrants recite prayers and light bonfires and fireworks and then enjoy a feast.