Zenya Shir of Irvine jumps over a fire pit at Corona del Mar State Beach on… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
An inky sky left the beach so dark, the only clue they were at the water's edge was the sound of crashing waves, and yet the hundreds of Persians stayed long after sunfall, huddled by the flames burning in the fire pits scattered across the shore.
The crowd had gathered on this Tuesday night as they had for decades, congregating on the sands of Corona del Mar State Beach to keep alive a tradition they had brought with them from Iran, even if it had become slightly Americanized in the process.
The Persian new year, or Nowruz, would be coming early the next morning. A leap over the smoky fire on the evening before was a cleansing rite, one they hoped would allow them to have a year blessed with good health.
But the tradition — celebrated here on one of Newport Beach's most popular shorelines — could be in jeopardy as state coastal and air quality officials wrestle over whether to extinguish the fire rings on the beaches in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Mahdi Rasoli, 50, was one of those who had come to leap over the flames and who knew of the ongoing debate. He celebrated this tradition as a young man in Iran, and he lamented the possibility of losing something he has done for 30 years, a gathering that now includes his children.
"It would be disappointing for us not to be able to come and have this celebration," he said. "It's one night a year."
The night — known as Chaharshanbe Suri — offered the crowd an opportunity to remember a homeland they had left behind and one many of their children had never known. According to the tradition, the flames could sweep away anything unpleasant from the past year and give them a fresh, healthy start.
Most of the dozen or so fires were small, with smoldering embers like a backyard barbecue, and with families and friends sitting around, talking and munching on roasted nuts. A few other fires raged, with their flames illuminating the faces of celebrants singing and clapping as the smoke coiled in the night air.
Throughout the night, almost everyone took their turn crossing over the flames that in some instances looked as though they were licking the heels of the jumpers.
Some participants were older, stepping gingerly over the smaller fires, and others were children, making the jump holding onto a parent's arm. Then there were the show-offs — the ones who took a running start for a long jump over the pit and into the sand, or the one buff man who squatted low, then sprang over the fire like it was a cross-fit move.
As they passed over the pit, many recited a short phrase in English or in Persian: May my sickly pallor be yours and your red glow be mine.
It was a jubilant occasion, and something that had become larger than just jumping over the flames. The younger people danced and crowded together for pictures.
Pejman Karimi said it was an opportunity to surround himself with his culture: to speak the language, enjoy the traditional foods and songs and be around his people. "This is a good time for us to get to know each other," said Karimi, 30, of Aliso Viejo.
"We try to make our new year blessed," said his cousin, Ali Karimi, 29, of Hawthorne.
"And just have some fun," Pejman Karimi said.
The tradition hasn't stayed exactly the same as it has been transferred to the cool sands of Southern California beaches.
"It's not the same thing, and it's so far away," said Yasaman Olivier, 47.
For one, she said, "It's been Americanized, jumping over a fire pit." In Iran, she said, it was common to light the small bonfire fueled with brush, often in yards or in the street.
Olivier brought her 7-year-old daughter, who seemed befuddled by a tradition that encouraged her to leap over something she had otherwise been taught to avoid and be careful around.
But Olivier, who lives in Irvine, said teaching her daughter about her roots is critical to her: She has taught her the language as well as the traditions of Iran. "She gets to see the traditions," she said. "I get to share what I grew up with."
One of those traditions was the new year: It would be coming at roughly 4 a.m. Wednesday, the moment of the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses directly over the equator, ushering in spring.