Yalda (a Syric word) is known as Shab-e Chelehin the Persian language. It is celebrated on the eve of the first day of winter (December 21) in the Iranian calendar, which falls on the Winter Solstice and 40 days before the next major Iranian festival “Jashn-e Sadeh(mid-winter fire festival)”. As the longest night of the year, the Eve of Yalda (Shab-e Yalda or Cheleh) is also a turning point, after which the days grow longer. It symbolised the triumph of Light and Goodness over the powers of Darkness.
Yalda celebration has great significance in the Iranian calendar. It is the eve of the birth of Mithra (Mehr in Persian), the [so-called] sun god, who symbolised light, goodness and strength on earth. [Shab-e Cheleh] is a time of joy. The festival was considered one of the most important celebrations in ancient Iran and continues to be celebrated to this day, for a period of more than 5000 years.
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 (Evil) are assumed to be at the peak of their strength. While the next day, the first day of the month ‘Day’ known as ‘khoram rooz’ or ‘khore rooz’ (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. The occasion was celebrated in the festival of ‘ Daygan ’ dedicated to Ahura Mazda, on the first day of the month ‘ Day ’ - ’ Day ‘ is equivalent of January.
Fires would be burnt all night to ensure the defeat of the forces of Ahriman (Evil). There were feasts, acts of charity and a number of deities were honored and prayers performed to ensure the total victory of sun that was essential for the protection of winter crops. There would be prayers to Mithra (Mehr) and feasts in his honor, since Mithra is the Ezad [Ezad meaning "saint" or "angel"] responsible for protecting ‘the light of the early morning’, known as ‘Havangah’. It was also assumed that Ahura Mazda would grant people’s wishes, specially those with no offspring had the hope to be blessed with children if performed all rites on this occasion.
One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in white would change place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. This tradition persisted till Sassanian period, and is mentioned by Biruni and others in their recordings of pre-Islamic rituals and festivals. Its’ origin goes back to the Babylonian New Year celebration.
Another related Roman festival celebrated at the same time was dedicated to Sol Invictus (”the invincible sun”). Originally a Syrian deity, the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus imported the cult in to Rome and Sol was made god of the state. With the spread of Christianity, Christmas celebration became the most important Christian festival. In the third century Christians celebrated various dates, from December to April for Christmas. January 6 was the most favored day because it was thought to be Jesus’ Baptismal day (in the Greek Orthodox Church this continues to be the day to celebrate Christmas). In year 350, December 25 was adopted in Rome and gradually almost the entire Christian Church agreed to that date, which coincided, with Winter Solstice and the festivals, Sol Invicta and Saturnalia. Many of the rituals and traditions of the pagan festivals were incorporated into the Christmas celebration and are still observed today.
With the conquest of Islam the religious significance of both Christmas and the ancient Persian festival was lost. 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 members would curl under, kept warm even ate and slept there. The table is called ‘corsi’ and was very popular till 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 Iranian’s growing up memories till recently.
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. — Excerpts from sources - one and two.
I will be away and back in 2008. Meantime, thanks for reading this blog. Happy Yalda ! Happy Illanout ! Merry Christmas !