kids fire jumping
Kids jumping the fires at the Persian Center in 2012. Photo: courtesy Persian Center

For more than 3,000 years, people have been leaping over fires to bid farewell to winter, burn away negativity and welcome with an open heart the New Year that begins on the first day of Spring. The ancient festival of fire, called Chahar Shanbeh Suri, has its roots in Zoroastrianism and is a warm-up to Nowruz, or Persian New Year. Crossing religious and national boundaries, it is observed across the globe by Persian Jews, Christians, Baha’is and Muslims.

Berkeley may hold the distinction, however, as the only city in the U.S. to close off a public street for the annual fire jumping festivities that will take place Tuesday March 12, from 6-10pm on Durant Avenue (between Milvia and Shattuck) with food, music and guaranteed hordes of gleeful fire jumpers of all ages.

The kid-friendly, alcohol-free street party, now in its 14th year, is sponsored by the Persian Center with the full support of the City, whose police and fire departments are happy to lend a hand. The Mayor often attends.

street party fire jumping
The Persian New Year street party on Durant Ave. draws a large crowd. Photo: courtesy Persian Center

The free event is so popular that, even on a rainy night, it attracts thousands. This Tuesday is supposed to be balmy, so expect Durant to be packed (and don’t even think about finding parking – public transit is your best bet.) A DJ will be on hand fuel the party with plenty of lively Iranian and pop music for dancing.

Amid the teeming crowds, two lanes holding several small fires are cordoned off. Lines of jumpers wait their turns. An essential element of the ritual is to shout as you leap over the flames (either in Persian or English): “Give me your beautiful red color, and take back my sickly pallor.” Children, either excited or apprehensive about leaping the flames, are often held by parents or helped by friendly Berkeley police officers to jump over one or more of the half dozen small fires.

mom fire jumping
Some young children get a little help jumping the fires. Photo: courtesy Persian Center

Shahin Tabrizi, one of the co-founders of the Persian Center, describes the event as “both structured and unstructured and all-inclusive of age and religion. We are happy to share our fire, food and neighborhood [and gratified that] many non-Iranians have made it an annual tradition.”

“This ritual represents burning or throwing away the bad, the past, sickness, and hatred,” says Tabrizi, “in order to start the New Year with no baggage, just a clean plate ready to receive whatever the cosmos has to offer you.”

As home to the Persian Center since 1999, “Berkeley is the perfect place to continue this ancient ritual,” he adds, “because the city is a symbol of freedom and openness to all ethnicities.”

Another founding member and former President of the Persian center, Niloo Nouri, who grew up in both Iran and the U.S., explains that in Iran fires are set on every street. “It’s a unifying ritual, a universal party where you get rid of negativity (‘the sickly yellow pallor’), and take in the warmth of the fire, so that after jumping you have red, rosy cheeks. Since I grew up in both cultures, one of my goals is to act as an ambassador, sharing the beautiful parts of my culture.”

In Persian culture, the entire last month of the year is taken up with preparations for the New Year — which begins officially Wednesday, March 20 at 4:03am — including cleaning the house from top to bottom, getting rid of unused clothes, and planting flowers like hyacinths and narcissus, according to Sima Tawakoli, administrator at the Persian Center.

Ajeel: a mixture of seven nuts and dried fruit: pistachios, roasted chickpeas, almond, hazelnuts, figs, apricots, and raisins. Photo: Anna Mindess

Tawakoli remembers her grandmother cleaning out dusty corners with a feather and around window edges with Q-tips. Growing up in Iran, she reveled in the way New Years celebrations crossed boundaries and brought closeness. “On my little street there were four families: we were Muslim, and my neighbors were Bahai, Jewish and Zoroastrian. We all baked and shared our traditional cookies, but with slightly different variations.”

Food is an integral part of Persian New Year festivities. During the fire jumping event Tuesday night, food vendors will sell kebabs, osh (a hearty bean and noodle soup) and other dishes. The one snack Tawakoli tells me that is always eaten on Chahar Shanbeh Suri is ajeel, a mixture of seven dried fruits and unsalted nuts.

You can buy the traditional ajeel mixture at Zands Market on Solano Avenue where owner Monier Attar recalls Chahar Shanbeh Suri when she grew up in Iran as a joyous evening with fireworks and music. “Jumping over the fire allows you to drop all your sadness and problems with other people and cleanse your heart.”

Besides the seven ingredients in ajeel, the number seven is an essential part of the centerpiece of Nowruz, the Haft Sin, a table set in every house with seven symbolic things that start with “S” (in Persian), including Sabzeh, sprouted wheat to symbolize rebirth, Seeb, apples, for health and beauty and Senjed, the sweet, dried fruit of the Lotus tree, for love. Also on the table are other meaningful items such as gold coins, a mirror, a flowering hyacinth and a platter of special pastries. Every year, Attar makes thousands of cookies from chickpea or rice flour and stocks everything else needed for the Haft Sin table.

The most important moment of the month-long celebration occurs when the Sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day, which happens every year at different times across the globe. This year, on the West Coast, this will occur Wednesday, March 20 at 4:03am. The whole family is supposed to be sitting around the Haft Sin table together. Attar remembers the excitement of a 4:00 a.m. Nowruz when she was a little girl and her mother woke her up at 3am to shower and put on new clothes. This year at 4:00 a.m. however, Monier (who lives with her two dogs), will sit at her Haft Sin table and share the moment with her son, a banker in Shanghai, through the magic of Facetime.

Berkeleyside’s photography intern, Kaia Diringer, will be chronicling the Persian New Year Festival tomorrow night in Berkeley, and we will publish her photos on Wednesday.

Persian community celebrates longest night of the year [12.17.12]
Ethnic eats in Berkeley from A to Z: Part 3 [03.16.12]
Ethnic eats in Berkeley from A to Z: Part 2 [03.09.12] 
Ethnic eats in Berkeley from A to Z: Part 1

Would you like a digest of the day’s Berkeley news in your inbox at the end of your working day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

Avatar photo

Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.