To Zoroastrians, Feasting on New Year's Day is a Religious
Ervad (Brig.) Behram Panthaki, mobed (priest) of the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington, Inc. (ZAMWI), sat cross-legged on the floor of the suburban Virginia building, surrounded by food.
To his left, beside a vase filled with several dozen red carnations, was a bowl filled with bananas and oranges; to his right was dried fruit; immediately in front of him, on a silver tray, was a glass of milk. None of this food was intended for the mobed; it was a dedication to the Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazda, in honor of Naoroz, the new year that occurs on the first day of spring, March 21.
A latecomer walked over and stooped down to place his own offering: a few strips of sandalwood. Ervad Panthanki reached over to scoop up a small amount of incense; then he sprinkled the incense on a fire leaping in a sand-filled, silver urn. The fire, representing God, sent sweet-smelling puffs of smoke into the air.
"As we are the followers of an excellent religion," Ervad Panthaki told the Zoroastrians after the rite was finished, "it is our bounden duty to be excellent in everything we do." He encouraged the community to take the opportunity of the new year to "imbibe the spirit of benevolence."
The immediate task of the community, though, was to imbibe the food brought for this celebration. Some of the food was already displayed above a ceremonial cloth: apples, symbolizing life and beauty; pudding in champagne glasses, symbolizing growth; green herbs, symbolizing prosperity; goldfish . . .
"Every year in Iran," said Hannah Shapero with mock solemnity, "thousands of goldfish sacrifice their lives at Naoroz."
Ms. Shapero is a student of Zoroastrianism; she has attended many celebrations of Naoroz. She explained that the goldfish would not be part of tonight's meal; then, like the others present, she knelt beside the fire-urn, sprinkled incense onto it, and touched the fire-ash to her forehead.
The celebration of Naoroz through food goes back to the time when Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Persian Empire, explained Kersi B. Shroff, president of ZAMWI. "In ancient times, when Persepolis was the center of the Persian Empire, vassals would bring tribute to the king, who claimed divine power," he said. "In the Persepolis friezes, you can still see the pictures of the tribute being brought by people from Assyria, India, and the rest of the empire."
Today the food continues to have religious importance, Ervad Panthanki said. "Fasting is forbidden in Zoroastrianism," he explained. "You don't bring suffering upon yourself. You've got to be happy, mentally and physically."
Each of the living objects in the rite was intended to be symbolic, Ervan Panthaki added. "The fruits are for the vegetable kingdom, the milk is for the animal kingdom, and mankind—" He paused and smiled. "That is the priest."
Ms. Shapero had been listening to the mobed's words; now she turned her head and looked out the window. "Oh, it's heresy," she said.
Outside, on the first day of spring, the day of new growth for the world and for Zoroastrians in particular, snow drifted lightly to the ground.
© 1998 Heather Elizabeth