By Massoume Price (Author of 6 books at www.anahitaproductions.com)
Yalda means birth and like other major Iranian celebrations is deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of Iran. Ancient Iranians celebrated seven obligatory feasts, six of them were known as gahanbar (appointed time) and the last was Norouz, the Iranian New Year. The names of the six gahanbars in the late Zoroastrian literature can be roughly translated as; 1-mid-spring, 2-mid-summer, 3-bringing in the corn, 4-homecoming (bringing animals to shelter before winter), 5-mid-year, and 6-Hamaspatmaedaya, which is not translated as yet, and is the feast that was devoted to the cult of dead ancestors and today is survived and celebrated as Chaharshanbeh Souri. The first, the third, and the fourth feasts celebrate times important for pastoralists and farmers. The second and the fifth marked natural phenomena and celebrated summer and winter solstices. It is the winter solstice that today is celebrated as Yalda.
The word Yalda is Syriac (Soryani) in origin. This was the dialect of Eastern Aramaic spoken in many parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey in the early Christian period. Tavalud and melaad are from the same origin. The word might have entered Iran with the Syriac Christians migrating to Iran, celebrating the birth of Jesus (Melaad Masih). The word found new meaning in the Iranian context. It is not clear why it is called Shab e Cheleh, but its celebration happens 40 days before another major Iranian celebration the Festival of Sadeh.
Winter solstice has been celebrated in many cultures for thousands of years. In Iran, it was celebrated to mark the victory of light over darkness and renewal of the Sun. The last day of the Persian month Azar is the longest night of the year, when the forces of Evil (Ahriman) are assumed to be at the peak of their strength. While the next day, the first day of the month 'Day' (dadar/god) also known as Khoram Ruz or Khoreh Ruz (the day of sun) belongs to Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom), the Zoroastrian sovereign God. Since the days are getting longer and the nights shorter, this day marks the victory of sun a symbol of Ahura Mazda over darkness representing Ahriman. The occasion was celebrated in the Daygan Festival dedicated to Ahura Mazda, on the first day of the month 'Day'. In the modern Iranian calendar it occurs around the 21st of December.
Fires were burnt all night to facilitate the victory over darkness. There were feasts with fruits, nuts and grains, prayers, music, sharing food and acts of charity. People made wishes and prayed to have children. They believed Ahura Mazda would grant their wishes on this night. 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. Amongst such deities was Mithra (Mihr) responsible for protecting 'the early morning light' known as Havangah. However, it is important to know that this festival is not dedicated to Mithra as commonly believed. His festival happened on Mihregan, on the day of Mihr in the month of Mihr, which in modern Iranian calendar is the 16th day of the seventh month (Mihr). In the post Islamic literature Mihr has become the same as sun. In Zoroastrian texts, Sun and Mithra are two different deities and are not the same.
One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in white, changed place with an ordinary citizen. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled into streets. This tradition survived into early Islamic period and is mentioned by the scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni (10th century) in his book Asaar al-Bagheyeh. The origin of it goes back to the ancient Babylonian New Year celebrations and was very popular in many ancient cultures.
Today Yalda has lost its religious significance and is a social occasion, when family and friends get together for fun, music, dance and merriment. Different kinds of fresh and dried fruits, nuts and seeds are shared in abundance, and are reminiscence of the ancient harvest and crop festivals. Medieval poetry mainly from Hafiz (14th century) the most popular poet in Iran is read. Fortunes are sought and wishes are made through the interpretation of his poems that are randomly selected. Prior to the advent of modern media popular stories were told by the elderly and the grandparents for the whole family to enjoy. Iranians from all faiths celebrates Yalda. Including the Iranian Jews who have a similar festival Ha'ilanot (Birkat Ha'ilanot) when blossoming fruit trees in the month of Nisan are celebrated with feasts, prayers, fresh and dried fruits and nuts.
There are similar festivals in many countries in southern Russia with some variations. Sweetbreads are made in shape of humans and animals. Bon fires are ignited and dancing that resemble crop harvesting are performed with music, merriment and communal feast.
Happy Shab e Cheleh.
About: Massoume Price is the author of Culture of Iran Youth Series:
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