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YALDA: The Persian Winter Solstice Celebration


Narrated by F & D Rahni

Winter solstice that usually falls on December 21 has been celebrated by human communities throughout the world for millennia. As many of the oldest civilizations have evolved between the Indus and Ganji rivers to the east and Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the west, where current Iran falls in the center, the celebration has been called Yalda ( aka Daygan) since antiquity. The word means (re-)birth of the sun. There are other derivations of the same Syriac (Aramaic) word adopted in the Indo-European Persian language, such as Tavallod and Milad that are synonymous.  Yalda puts behind the longest night of the year, when daylight begins to become longer (the triumph of light over darkness). It is also called "Shabe Chelleh", meaning the first night of a forty day period before another revered Persian celebration, Jashne Sadeh. The latter is one hundred days before the grandest Persian commemorations, Norouz, or the Persian New Year.  Yalda was adopted from the Babylonians and incorporated into Zoroastrianism by Persians.


The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (God of Agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (Sun God) are amongst the best known observances of winter solstice in the West, and as commemorated by the European pagans. The Romans, especially the aristocracy celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the Persian Goddess of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year. In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday as the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday, which was thought to have occurred in spring. Pope Julius I, however, chose December 25 for the birth of Jesus in order to mask the the pagan Saturnalia or Mithra festival.  Mithra (Mehr) is responsible for protecting "the light of dawn called Havangah." The day after Yalda, known as "khoram rooz" or "khore rooz" (the day of sun) belongs to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom.


One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order. The king dressed in white would change place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned who ruled with disorder and chaos as they believed order came of chaos, and masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. Following the Persian tradition, the usual order of the year was suspended. Grudges and quarrels forgotten, wars would be interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts and schools were closed. Rich and poor became equal, masters served slaves, and children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, merriment of all kinds prevailed. A mock king, the Lord of Misrule, was crowned. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.

The Iranian Jews, who are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country, in addition to "Shab-e Cheleh", also celebrate the festival of "Illanout" (tree festival) at around the same time. Their celebration of Illanout is very similar to Shab-e Cheleh celebration. Candles are lit; all varieties of dried and fresh winter fruits will have to be present. Special meals are prepared and prayers are performed.

Citation: Massoume Price (



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