Zoroastrian Holy Days and Observances
Zoroastrian religious observances are divided into seasonal, monthly and annual festivals. Communities generally celebrate these events quietly 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. Festivals can fall on different days, depending on the calendar used. Persian Zoroastrians follow the Qadīmī (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.
Nowruz (also Nouruz, Naw-ruz or Norooz), the Persian New Year, is one of the most important holy days for Zoroastrians. Many other communities also celebrate it, including Bahá’ís, Sufis, and some Muslims. Nowruz falls on March 21 on the Fasli seasonal calendar. Parsis who follow the Shahenshai or Kadami (Qadmi) calendars celebrate the spring equinox as Jamshed-i-Nouroz and New Year’s Day in July or August.
Nowruz is a celebration of God, the spiritual and material creation and the elements: earth, sky, water, air, plants and animals. In preparation for the New Year, believers clean and decorate their homes. On Nowruz, they visit the Fire Temple, perform Jashn (worship), visit relatives and friends, and enjoy special foods and rituals.
Khordad Sal, the Prophet Zarathustra’s birthday, is an important holiday. Also called Greater Nowruz, it is celebrated six days after Nowruz. Family and community are core values of the faith, and Khordad Sal brings families and friends together. 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, believers visit friends, enjoy a feast, and make resolutions for the future.
Zoroastrians observe six five-day festivals that celebrate the sanctity of God’s universal creations. During each Gahambar, 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. It falls on the 41st to 45th days of the year (usually April 30 to May 4). This festival is associated with heaven and creation of the stars and the universe’s fire.
Maidyoi-shema. Celebrating midsummer, Maidyoi-shema is observed on the 101st to 105th days of the year, 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 fall harvest. It takes place on the 176th to 180th days (September 12 to 16).
Ayathrem. Ayathrem is associated with vegetation, which is considered to be the first sign of life after creation. This Gahambar marks the return of cattle herds from grazing in faraway lands. Zoroastrians celebrate Ayathrem on the 206th to 210th days, usually October 12 to 16.
Maidyarem. The midwinter festival, Maidyarem is associated with the evolution of animals. The fifth Gahambar is celebrated on the 286th through 290th days, 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). Hamaspathmaidyem marks the spring equinox and is associated with humankind’s evolution on the earth.
Mehregan, the Persian Festival of Autumn, honors Mehr (or Mithra/Mitra), the goddess of light, friendship, love and kindness. A reminder of Zoroastrianism’s “good words, good deeds and good thoughts,” Mehregan also celebrates the fall harvest and abundance. The festival takes place on the 10th day of the month of Mehr, usually the second week in October.
Zoroastrians set up a ceremonial table for the occasion with the Khordeh Avesta (a book of prayers), a mirror, and a sormeh dan (container of kohl eyeliner). Flowers, vegetables and fruits, rosewater, sweets, nuts, and incense are also on the table. 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. They embrace each other and toss wild marjoram, lotus and sugar plum seeds over each other’s heads. In the evening, celebrants recite prayers, light bonfires and fireworks and enjoy a feast.
Fravardeghan Days (Muktad)
Zoroastrians following the Shahenshai calendar observe Fravardeghan Days (Muktad) during the last 10 days of the religious year, in preparation for the New Year. During these holy days, it’s believed that the fravashis (spirits) of the righteous departed come back to Earth. Believers welcome and honor them with special rituals and offerings.
Families dress in white and cover their heads before visiting the fire temple daily. Each day, they pour fresh water into silver or copper vases, where the departed ancestors are believed to stay. The families offer roses and other flowers, fruit, and vegetarian food, while priests recite prayers and burn incense.