Zoroastrian festivals fall into two broad categories. There are the seven feasts of obligation, that is, No Rōz (Nowrūz) and the six gāhānbārs (gāhāmbār; q.v.), which formed the framework of the religious year, and which it was a sin not to keep; and others, which it was a merit, not a duty, to observe. This second category can be subdivided into major and minor feasts. The former, kept generally throughout the community, were in honor of great yazatas (benign divinities) of the Zoroastrian pantheon, with the exception of Frawardīgān (q.v.) and Sada, which is a winter fire-festival. Of the minor ones, of which not much is recorded, a number were in honor of locally venerated yazatas, with whose cults fairs often grew up. Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, writing around 1000 C.E., said of them: “We cannot fix them, as little as we can the watercourses of a torrent, it being impossible to count them” (Āṯār, p. 230, tr. Sachau, p. 217). One which he did record, Waḵš-angām, was celebrated in Chorasmia in honor of Waḵš (Waḵš-angām), divinity of the river Oxus (ibid., p. 237, tr. p. 225). There were also annual festivals at appointed times at pilgrim shrines (Boyce, Stronghold, pp. 241-70), and each Parsi Ātaš Bahrām (see ĀTAŠ) holds an annual festival to commemorate the day of its sacred fire’s enthronement. Individuals or communities have sometimes established yearly festivals to celebrate some local event, and sometimes such a festival evolved in spontaneous thanksgiving after a remarkable happening, as with the Sasanian feast of Ābrīzagān (q.v.; Bīrūnī, Āṯār, pp. 228-29, tr. Sachau, pp. 215-16). In addition to annual festivals, small occasional ones may be celebrated at any time by a family or a local community, in thanksgiving or worship, and these, too, are called jašans, which is the generic Zoroastrian term for a festival.
Jašan or jašn are the Middle and New Persian forms of Avestan yasna, meaning “an act of worship,” and a religious service is an essential part of every festival. Such services range in solemnity according to the importance of the festival, from the long and elaborate Visperad, celebrated (with other acts of worship) at each of the seven obligatory feasts, to the Yasna itself, and down to a simple Āfrīnagān (q.v.) for minor observances. Since every jašan is essentially a holy occasion, those taking part should be in a state of physical and ritual cleanliness, for dirt and pollution belong to the evil creation and prevent prayers and worship reaching the divine beings. They should also seek to banish from their thoughts any “demons” of anger, grief, resentment, or the like, and try rather to entertain contentment, cheerfulness, and charitable feelings towards all, such as are pleasing to the yazatas.
On the obligatory festivals all but necessary work was forbidden, and the other great feast-days were also generally kept as holidays. Preparations were made in advance, houses were scrupulously swept and cleaned, and people wore their best clothes. In traditional usage everyone first attended at least part of the religious services, saying their own prayers while these were solemnized by the priests; or if unable to do this, they at least took part by sharing in the food then blessed (Modi, 1937, pp. 424-25; Boyce, Stronghold, pp. 34-35, 39-40, 232-33, 234). Thereafter it was a pleasant duty to be as merry as possible, since in Zoroastrian doctrine joyfulness is a positive virtue, a weapon to defeat sorrow and care. Feasting, the friendly and enjoyable sharing of food and drink, forms a prominent part of Zoroastrian festivals, with the feasts sometimes being provided by an individual (either through a charitable endowment or by a single act of hospitality), sometimes, especially in the case of the gāhānbārs, being communal banquets, with everyone contributing.
There were traditional festal foods, and some dishes were associated with particular festivals (Bīrūnī, Āṯār, p. 235, tr. Sachau, p. 221; see also individual feast days); wine was regularly drunk, with toasts being given. There seems also always to have been music, either at the feast, or afterward, or both. Male and female musicians figure, with banqueters, in Sogdian wall paintings (e.g., Azarpay, Pls. 28-30; Belenizki, pp. 107, 209); and the Sogdian divinity Artimpasa, identified as Avestan Aši (q.v.; Grenet, pp. 41-45), is represented on a gold plate of the 4th century B.C.E. enthroned among musicians and merry revelers, who are presumably celebrating her feast (Bessonova, p. 101, fig. 25). In the same century, in the far west of the Zoroastrian world, the Greek poet Diogenes wrote of Bactrian girls in Anatolia worshipping the yazata Anāhīt (q.v.) “in her laurel-shaded grove the while they, ‘mid plucking of triangles and pectides, thrum the magadis in responsive twanging, where also the flute, in Persian fashion, joins its welcome concord to the chorus” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 14.636; Boyce and Grenet, Zoroastrianism, p. 204). When in the first century B.C.E. Antiochus I of Commagene founded annual festivals to celebrate his own birthday and coronation day, he endowed lavish banquets, at which wine was to be served unstintingly and music played as long as those present wished. The musicians were women permanently attached to the sanctuary which was the center of the cult (see Boyce and Grenet, Zoroastrianism, p. 341, with references). At Damascus (q.v.) in the third century B.C.E. the sound of revelry at “a Persian festival” rose up from the countryside round about so loudly that it reached the city walls (Polyaenus, 4.15). Still in modern times Zoroastrians enjoy music and dancing at their festivals, and down into the second half of the 20th century at traditional Zoroastrian centers in Persia worshippers would sing and dance on festal days at shrines themselves (Boyce, Stronghold, pp. 91-92; idem, 1975, pp. 114-15). Other pleasant sociable diversions were also entered into, such as story-telling, play-acting, and mime, with yet others which varied according to place and time. In Zoroaster’s own distant day chariot-racing appears to have been deeply enjoyed. In Parthian Iran racing of horses is mentioned at Nowrūz (Faḵr-al-Dīn Gorgānī, p. 35, l.47, tr. p. 20), whereas athletic contests took place at Anāhīt’s festivals in Lydia under Roman rule (Boyce and Grenet, Zoroastrianism, pp. 239-41). Particular customs and observances were associated with the major feasts, and these in time attracted speculations about their origin, and so about the origin of the festivals themselves (such as were gathered by Bīrūnī, Āṯār, pp. 215-18, 220-21, 222-23, for Nowrūz, Tīragān and Mehragān).
In fact, since Zoroastrianism is an ancient faith, there is no record of the founding of any of its major festivals. It seems a reasonable surmise that Nowrūz, the holiest of them all, with deep doctrinal significance, was founded by Zoroaster himself, while the six gāhānbārs, whose Young Avestan names show that they were originally pastoral and farming festivals, were probably adopted and rededicated to the faith by his followers during the “Young Avestan” period, that is about 1200-800 B.C.E. (Boyce, 1993, p. 105). Between sunset of the day of the 6th gāhānbār and sunrise of Nowrūz was celebrated Hamaspaθmaēdaya (later known, in its extended form, as Frawardīgān), and this and the gāhānbārs are the only festivals named in the surviving Avesta. The observance of Mehragān is known from Achaemenid times, and it and Nowrūz, Tīragān, and Sada are alluded to for the Parthian period. References to the keeping of festivals is fuller for the Sasanian epoch, and most abundant from the Middle Ages down to the present day (for details see individual festivals). The observances which are best known are those of Persians, and their religious calendar tends to be considered as “the” Zoroastrian one, since it appears to have been adopted throughout the Sasanian empire, and so has been followed by the Parsis and Persian Zoroastrians alike; but thanks to Bīrūnī (Āṯār, pp. 234-40) there has long been some knowledge also of festivals kept locally by the Sogdians and Chorasmians, and this has been added to this century through archeological discoveries. There are materials also for Zoroastrian observances as kept in Armenia (see armenia iii, Religion).
In Zoroaster’s time his people appear to have had a calendar of 360 days, divided into twelve months of thirty days each, with probably a thirteenth month added every six years or so to keep it in accord with the seasons. During the “Young Avestan” period a specifically Zoroastrian form of this calendar was created by dedicating each of the thirty days in a month to one of the yazatas (for the list see above, IV, p. 661), with at this stage the 8th, 15th and 23rd days devoted, it seems, to Apam Nąpāt, Haoma (qq.v.), and Dahma Āfriti (see DAHM YAZAD; Boyce, 1993, pp. 108-10). The thirty dedications are set together in Yasna 16, presumably for mnemonic purposes. The dedications of the twelve months to twelve out of the same thirty yazatas were probably made later in the Achaemenid period, for there is no listing of them in the Avesta, where the names of only seven of them occur, incidentally and in late contexts (Bartholomae, Air. Wb., col. 1171). Thereafter whenever a day- and month-name had the same dedication (such as day of Mithra, month of Mithra), the day was celebrated as a festival for that yazata. New feast-days were thus created for Ahura Mazdā (q.v.), to whom the first day of the month was devoted, and the six great Aməša Spəntas, the Fravašis (qq.v.), Tištrya/Tīri, Mithra, Āpas (see ĀBĀN) and Ātar (see ĀDUR). Moreover, possibly under Zurvanite influence (Nyberg, pp. 132-34), the 8th, 15th and 23rd days were now rededicated to the “Creator (Dadvah) Ahura Mazdā.” (These are in fact the only attested dedications of the four days, the hypothesis proposed being that appropriate alterations were made at this time in Yasna 16). In consequence there were from then on four festivals for Ahura Mazdā (q.v.) in the month Dadvah (Mid. Pers. Dai), a midwinter month when the creator’s power and the worship and joyfulness of his creatures were especially needed to combat the evils of cold and darkness. Bīrūnī (Āṯār, p. 235, tr. Sachau, p. 222) noted that in his time the Sogdians held fairs (in conjunction evidently with religious observances) on the three “Creator” days.