'Twas the night before the last Wednesday of the year — pretty much Tuesday, bear with me.
It was a night when families and friends gather 'round the fire, sharing food, drinks and desserts, welcoming in the new year with open arms, happy thoughts and warm wishes.
They sing and dance. And they jump over the fire, which is believed to take away the yellow color of illness and sadness and replace it with the red color of flames, which symbolizes health and wellness in all aspects.
Sounds ancient and non-Western, doesn't it?
And it all went down Tuesday night at Corona del Mar State Beach, and I was in the middle of it. And judging from the City Council's Tuesday decision to remove the storied fire rings, it could be the last celebration I attend in CdM.
Chaharshanbeh Soori, or the Festival of Fire, is an ancient Persian tradition that dates to the Zoroastrian era. The festival takes place the night (Tuesday) before the last Wednesday of the year — that's how they say it — leading to Norooz, which is the beginning of the Persian spring new year. Yes, it's a bit complicated, as Middle Easterners can be (ahem).
This year, Norooz begins around 10 p.m. Monday.
Tuesday is the first day of the spring new year, and the celebration goes on for 13 days. Chaharshanbeh Soori, as it was explained to me by friends, allows Persians the chance to prepare for the new year, letting go of all the bad and welcoming the good. It's a cultural holiday, and all Persians celebrate it, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Persian families roll out what's called Sofreh Haft Seen, a dining room table full of seven items that start with the letter 'C' in Farsi. Some of those items are Persian rice and whitefish, coins, garlic and sprouts.
Although I've been to Norooz picnics and celebrations in the past, this was my first Chaharshanbeh Soori.
The council's decision marked the end of the Mashadi family and friends' 22-year-long tradition of celebrating Chaharshanbeh Soori at Corona del Mar State Beach.
I parked next to Morteza Mashadi and his brother, Majid, their respective wives and children. I watched as they greeted friends and pulled wood and pots of food out of their car. I decided, "They seem nice. I'll talk to them."
I know Farsi, so I greeted them that way. "Saalom (Hi)," I said. "Cheetori? (How are you?)" — and that's all I needed to start the conversation.
I introduced myself and told them it was my first Chaharshanbeh Soori, and as we walked together closer to the beach, there were other family members and friends doing the same thing: starting fires, sitting around it and greeting each other.
I talked to the wives of the brothers, Samira and Katauon. The latter asked me if I was married or if I have a Persian boyfriend because of the necklace I wore (I don't), and they told me more about their tradition. None of that was surprising. I'm Egyptian, and I understand our kind of women.
I originally planned on walking around and talking to more people, but the Mashadi family made me feel at home.
"Sit, Mona, sit," Morteza said.
I "Taarof'ed" a little. "No, thank you. I'm OK standing," I replied.
"Come on, sit," Majid said. I Taarof'ed some more.