Yalda — The Ancient Iranian Festival celebrating Light’s victory over Dark
Yalda is a Pre-Islamic Iranian festival of the Winter Solstice, and is one of four pivotal festivals marking the changing of seasons (Alongside Norouz for Spring, Mehregan for Autumn and Tiregan for Summer). This year it falls on Sunday 22nd December.
It represents a metaphorical victory of love and warmth over the chill of winter — a period when hearts move closer to one another . The word itself may have Syriac Christian roots, meaning “birth”, being absorbed into Old Persian at a time when the various Iranian peoples (including Persians and Parthians) came into contact with Eastern Christians who were fleeing persecution in the 1st century AD. Yalda is also referred to as Shab-e Chelleh, the night of the first forty days of winter which are often the most difficult to bear.
The festival starts after the longest night of the year — the last day of the month of “Azar”, after which light triumphs over Dark and days grow longer. This represents a primal and eternal victory of Light and Good over Darkness and Evil in the old Zoroastrian religion of Iran. Bonfires are burnt all night in dedication to Ahura Mazda (The Creator) until the return of the “early morning light” which is protected by Mithra (the God of Light), representing the defeat of the evil forces of Ahriman (the God of Darkness). Ahriman’s strength is at his peak during this time, and people were advised to stay awake together during the long night.
Although the religion in Iran changed after the fall of the Sassanid Empire (224-651 AD) and the rise of Islam, the festival has for centuries remained an important cultural event in which family and friends congregate. Indeed, it remains a marvel that the many ancient pre-Islamic festivals of Iran endure as the most important cultural events for the people of the country (despite the political situation in the country). The two festivals which are celebrated unanimously among Iranians are Norouz, which represents the Persian New Year, and Yalda.
Around the time of Yalda, streets throughout the country are bustling as grocers, confectionarists and florists display all their produce to the many people excitedly preparing for the night.
Food, Drink and Blessings for Prosperity
As bonfires are lit outside, friends and family gather in a night-long ceremony around a low table called a korsi, which is underheated by hot coals. This ceremony is called Chelleh Neshini and the objective is a rejoicing in the warmth of one another’s company.
The elder of the house shares fruit and vegetables which have been saved — including honeydew and watermelons, citrus fruits, apples and grapes. He/she then cuts the watermelon and gives everyone a share, whilst saying prayers for prosperity in the year to come. This ritual symbolizes the removal of illness and pain from the group, indeed the consumption of watermelons was considered a form of protection or immunization against illness in ancient Iran. This is a remnant of the Galenic medicine which was espoused by the great polymath Avicenna, where the hot humor causes febrile illness and is cured by cool fruits.
For the remainder of the night, the guests share various food and drink around the Sofreh (a traditional woven table cloth), often served in intricate floral bowls and accompanied by books and candles
Ajil-e Yalda: A mixture of nuts, seeds and dried fruit which represent the abundance of the Summer (as juxtaposed to fresh fruits which represent the importance of food during winter).
Khoresht-e Bademjam: Eggplant stew with saffron rice
Ash-e Reshteh: A kind of noodle soop
Halva: A dense and sweet confection, flavoured with rosewater, which is darker than the Arabic version.
Drinking wine has also been an important part of Yalda, although the current political situation in Iran makes this somewhat more difficult to obtain for many people. Home-made moonshine known as Aragh Sagi (Dog Ale) is often used as a substitute.
Alongside the food and drink, guests recite poetry and play instruments, tell jokes and yarns, and keep warm together until the sun emerges in the morning. After dinner, the more old and wise hosts and guests entertain the others by telling anecdotes. The works of poets Sa’adi and Hafez are often recited. In particular, the latter’s Divan of Hafez is a form of bibliomancy whereby the book is used to divine what will happen in future. However, the belief goes that this cannot be used more than three times or else the dead poet’s soul will be perturbed.
Pomegranate — The Immortal Fruit
Serving fruit during Yalda is very important, as an invocation for divinities to protect the winter harvest. Watermelons and Pomegranates are particularly symbolic, as they represent the hues of dawn and the glow of life. Pomegranates particularly are ubiquitous as the fruit of immortality. The ancient Zoroastrian religion described the fruit as symbolising the eternal soul and the perfection of nature. The ancient Iranian hero Esfandiar also became invincible after eating the pomegranate.
This is often sprinkled with a spice called Golpar (also known as angelica powder), a spice which is both aromatic and bitter.
As befits a celebration which has existed for thousands of years, regional and national differences do exist. In some areas, it is custom that forty different types of food or drink are served during the night.
Superstitious beliefs may dominate regional differences. In the Khorasan region, the traditional consumption of carrots, pears, pomegranates and olives protects against scorpions. People read out verses from the long epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdosi, and also have interesting matrimonial customs: A groom’s family also sends a band to an unsuspecting bride-to-be.
Conversely, in the northwest Azerbaijan province, new brides carry gifts to future bride-to-bes in their family. In East Azerbaijan, local folk musicians known as Aashigh’s sing songs, play traditional instruments and recite poetry.
In Kerman, a symbolic legendary woodcutter called Gharoun arrives to bring wood for poor families.
Many provinces have their own food items such as Kaf (a sweet made from the root of Acanthophyllum) in Khorasan, Ranginak (date cakes) in Shiraz, Ash-e Shir (milk stew) in Gilan,
Other countries also have similar festivals — Tajikistan and Afghanistan have strong cultural and linguistic bonds to Iran and celebrates Yalda similarly. The Kurdish people also celebrate the day in a unique way, as do the people of the Azerbaijan Republic (who call the festival Çillə Gecəsi).
Yalda can be interpreted as a simple metaphorical triumph of light and warmth during dark times. The celebration emphasizes connection and compassion. Now, more than ever, it is relevant in Iran and the World.