On an otherwise dreary Tuesday, Mar. 16, 2022, a considerable crowd grew around a set of three small fires at the Kingston Memorial Center as the first official public observance of Chaharshanbe Suri was celebrated.
The festival Chaharshanbe Suri is an ancient tradition dating back over 3,000 years, celebrated by by people of Iranian, Afghan, Kurdish and Azeri descent, and in Zoroastrian, Bahai, Ismaili, and other communities. It’s the first festivity of the Nowruz Celebrations festival (the Iranian New Year), is held before the spring equinox (March 20 this year), and marks the transition from the old year to the beginning of a new one.
Participants jump over small fires, asking the fires to, as the saying goes, “Take the yellow of my sickness, and bring the red of my health,” while others sing and dance around, welcoming in the coming new year.
Chaharshanbe Suri has some similarities to Beltane, a Celtic ritual held on the full moon midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, and Kupala in Eastern Slavic countries, celebrated on the summer solstice.
The rain and dampness in the air on Tuesday night could hardly be felt as the warmth from both the fire and the spirit of the crowd radiated a comforting gleam. The crowd was obviously a very tight knit community. Families, couples, students, and individuals were all mingling, smiling, and happy to see one another.
Although Chaharshanbe Suri has been observed privately on the Queen’s University Campus for around 15 years, the festival has not been celebrated in a large group setting for two years due to pandemic gathering limitations. According to one of the event organizers, John Casnig, public gathering didn’t stop some from observing this tradition. “I know of some families that even lit candles in their driveways to jump over, that’s how deeply ingrained and beloved this tradition is to many,” he shared.
Dr. Alireza Bakhshai and Casnig, along with around 15 other organizers, made the event public after the (unofficial) Iranian Community Association approached Casnig to help get permission from the City of Kingston to host the event on public grounds. The team pulled everything together in two weeks against considerable hurdles, made much easier by the easing of COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2022.
“I would like to thank the many departments of the City of Kingston for all of [their] enthusiastic help in making this event possible, especially Kingston’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Manager, Muhammad Ahsan, without whom this wonderful event would not be possible,” said Dr. Bakhshai. “We had help and advice from at least 10 departments, including representatives from Fire, Police, Bylaw, Parks, Licensing, Health, Insurance, and others.” Bakhshai added that, “the support from the community has been overwhelming, too, with ample donations of wood from Rona and Corcoran, and reusable bags to carry and distribute the wood from Terry at Food Basics.” The donated wood was split and placed in these bags for the event, with any remaining wood going to the Integrated Care Hub afterwards.
“The more out of their way I can be, the better,” said Casnig on Tuesday night. “I’m just here to be the bridge between what the community needs and what the City needs to make this happen and to ensure safety for everyone involved.” Casnig (who is also involved in organizing the ‘Emergency Meeting of the Tobogganing Committee‘) explained that he’s been an avid camper and fire-builder for most of his life, so he used that experience to ensure that the fires made from were safe, low temperature burning spruce wood.
Participants, all of whom registered for the event, also had to sign a detailed liability waiver granting them a yellow tag to display when jumping the fires.
The appreciation the community had for Casnig and the team’s efforts was evident, as he was constantly being greeted, thanked and pulled into dancing circles. “The Farsi word for ‘dear’ sounds like the English name ‘John,’ and there’s a song that repeats the word. They keep singing it to me,” he laughed as he was whisked away into dancing.
Hot chocolate, tea, coffee, and snacks were offered free of charge at the event, as well. “Everything is halal,” said Casnig, “we even found halal marshmallows at a local store because we wanted everyone to feel included and not have to worry. We just want everyone to have a good time.” Casing was also quick to pick up any fallen trash adding that, “we want to be as respectful to both the City and the community as possible. There’s obviously a history of complications between the two parties and we want to do what we can to ease those tensions.”
Three small faux fires were lovingly made by Krista Casnig using sheer fabric, ribbons, coloured cellophane, plastic zip ties, LED lights and felt trivets all held together with tape and hot glue. These were made available for those under 18, or who shied away from the real fires to jump. Small children in snowsuits adorably enjoyed playing, dancing, and learning about the tradition safely around these fires.
One couple at the festival explained that they’ve been observing Chaharshanbe Suri for as long as they can remember. When asked when they first jumped the fires, they said they were around five or six years old. When most participants were asked what brought them out on Tuesday night, they responded with a smile, “it’s tradition!”
Dr. Bakhshai has long hoped to hold a public version of the event in Kingston, noting “In Iran, jumping over fires is part of our culture, so we don’t think of it as particularly dangerous — even children do it. But it is difficult to bring this culture to Canada, where people are unfamiliar with it. Our hope is that we have created something suitable to continue and grow in Kingston for many years to come, and to develop further our partnership with the City of Kingston.”
As the sun went down, the crowd grew and the dancing intensified. One man holding a boom box up played Iranian music, as the community danced, sang and laughed, celebrating the shedding of sorrows and the joy of a new year.