TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranians lit bonfires, set off fireworks and sent wish lanterns floating into the night sky Tuesday to celebrate the "Festival of Fire," a nearly 4,000-year-old Persian tradition that has been discouraged by religious hard-liners.
The annual ritual dates back to at least 1700 B.C. and is linked to Zoroastrianism. It comes days before Nowruz, the Persian new year, which will be rung in on March 21.
A crowd gathered around one bonfire cheered as young men set off fireworks and danced to party music blasting from a car stereo. People leaped over the flames chanting "My yellow is yours, your red is mine," a phrase that invokes casting off ills and receiving warmth and energy.
The day offers a rare opportunity for citizens of the Islamic Republic to dance and celebrate in public. Police had warned people to stay away from main streets and squares but did not move to disperse the revelers.
"I wish there were more celebrations so that the desire for celebration wouldn't accumulate," said Anooshirvan Mardani, 30, who marked the festival with his wife.
"If that was the case, then people wouldn't have to release their energy with these explosions and dancing."
The fire festival also features an Iranian version of trick-or-treating, with people going door to door and being given a holiday mix of nuts and berries, as well as buckets of water.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, hard-liners have discouraged celebrations of the festival, viewing it as a pagan holdover. The Western-allied monarchy that was toppled by the revolution had emphasized the country's pre-Islamic past, presenting itself as the heir of a Persian civilization stretching back to antiquity.
Pejman Mousavi, a freelance journalist who writes about culture, said Iranians "never say no to celebrations."
"In recent years people have shown more interest in re-exploring their ancient traditions," he added.
The fire festival is one of two holidays with ancient roots that are still observed each year, the other being a picnic day in early April.