Yalda Night (Yalda Eve), as the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, is commemorated on or around December 20 or 21 each year.
In most ancient cultures, including Persia, the start of the solar year has been marked to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and the renewal of the sun. For instance, Egyptians, four thousand years ago celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of the year. They set the length of the festival at 12 days, to reflect the 12 divisions in their solar calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month.
The term Yalda is used interchangeably with ‘Shab-e Cheleh’, a Zoroastrian celebration of Winter Solstice around December 21st. Forty days before the next Persian festival ‘Jashn e Sadeh’, this night has been celebrated in countless cultures for thousands of years. The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (God of Agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (Sun God) are amongst the best-known examples in the Western world.
The Persians adopted their annual renewal festival from the
Babylonians and incorporated it into the rituals of their own Zoroastrian religion. The last day of the Persian month Azar is the longest night of the year, when the forces of Ahriman are assumed to be at the peak of their strength. While the next day, the first day of the month ‘Day’ known as ‘khoram ruz’ or ‘khore ruz’ (the day of sun) belongs to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. Since the days are getting longer and the nights shorter, this day marks the victory of sun over the darkness.
There were feasts, acts of charity and a number of deities were honored and prayers were performed to ensure the total victory of sun that was essential for the protection of winter crops.
Today ‘Shab-e Cheleh’ is merely a social occasion, when family and friends get together for fun and merriment. Different kinds of dried fruits, nuts, seeds and fresh winter fruits are consumed. The presence of dried and fresh fruits is reminiscence of the ancient feasts to celebrate and pray to the deities to ensure the protection of the winter crops. Medieval poetry from Hafez is read and fortunes are sought through the interpretation of his poems. This extremely popular poet lived in the 14th century, his poetry is found in almost every household. It is a tradition to make a wish, then open a page randomly and start reading the first poem on that page.
Interpretations of the poem are used to decide whether the wish will come true or not. Before the coming of TV and other mass media, it was customary for the grandparents to tell popular old stories to their grandchildren on this night.
Family members gathered around and under a uniquely designed short wooden table covered with large quilts and blankets. A small charcoal fire was prepared in a fire resistant open container with ashes on top to regulate and control the burning charcoal. This was placed under the table and all the family members would curl under, kept warm and even ate and slept there. The table is called ‘corsi’ and was very popular until recently. Electricity and more efficient heating systems have eliminated corsi as a heating alternative. However, many traditional families still use modern electrical versions of it and the tradition is kept alive. Curling under corsi, listening to grandparents telling ancient and magical stories, eating fruits, nuts etc., is associated with shab-e cheleh and was part of every one’s memories until recently.