By Nazanine Nouri
Millions of Iranians around the world have been celebrating the ancient Persian festival of autumn — Jashn-e Mehregan — on Friday Oct. 2.
Falling on the 196th day of the Persian calendar year — the 10th of Mehr — Mehregan is the second most significant Persian festival after Nowruz, and dates back more than 3,000 years.
The feast of Mehregan continues to be celebrated to the present day, particularly among Zoroastrians in the Yazd and Kerman provinces of Iran. It is customary at this time to participate in a thanksgiving ceremony and share a special communal meal. On this occasion, celebrants wear new clothes and set a decorative, colorful table. The sides of the tablecloth are festooned with dry wild marjoram, while the holy book of Khordeh Avesta, a mirror, and a sormeh-dan (a traditional container of eyeliner or kohl) decorate the table along with rosewater, sweets, lotus tree fruit [senjed], nuts (almonds and pistachios), flowers and fruits (pomegranates and apples).
The ceremony begins at lunchtime, when everyone stands in front of the mirror to pray. A cool fruit drink is served and then – as a good omen – kohl is applied around the eyes. After that, participants throw handfuls of wild marjoram and sugar-coated almonds [noghl] over each other’s heads while they embrace one another. Celebrations end in the evening with bonfires, fireworks and dancing on this merry occasion.
Dedicated to the ancient Indo-Iranian god of light, Mithra (who is more commonly referred to as Mehr), the feast of Mithra was one of the most popular festivals for ancient Iranians. It was believed that on Mehregan, Mithra/Mehr defeated all of the darkness in the world and filled the earth with light.
The feast was in all probability pre-Zoroastrian, and is possibly a carryover from a much earlier Iranian New Year festival when the year began with the autumnal equinox.
In the Zoroastrian calendar, Mehregan is a name-day festival, celebrated on the 16th day of the month of Mehr, the seventh month of the calendar year. There were 12 months, each consisting of 30 days, in the calendar year. Every day of the month had its specific name, and one of the days had the same name as that of the month it was in. That day was considered a special day, a day of feasting. The 16th day of each month was called “Mehr,” so the 16th day of the month of Mehr was celebrated and became known as Mehregan.
Mehregan, which lasted six days in ancient Persia, heralded the harvest season and was a time for love and gratitude for life. The ripening of crops and fruit was seen as symbolic of the ripening of the world into fullness.
During the reign of the Achaemenids, it was celebrated with the same pageantry as Nowruz, the first day of spring, which marked the start of the Persian New Year. Together, they were the only two occasions in a year when the king would hold an audience where delegations from the subjected lands of the Persian Empire would come to present their gifts.