Yalda Night Festival, Shab-e Yalda Ancient Celebration
Yalda Night: Persian Celebration at Winter Solstice & Longest Night of the Year!
Every year, on December 21st, Iranians gather together to celebrate one of the traditions of their forefathers: Yalda Night or Shab-e Yalda. Since ancient times, they have passed the longest and darkest night of the year, the last night of fall, in the warm company of friends and family. Yalda Night Festival of ancient Iran is filled with laughter, chatter, color, poetry, story-telling, and food. This warm welcome to winter is also celebrated in the lost pieces of Persia, in countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Armenia.
When is Yalda Night
Every year, when the sun reaches farthest away from the earth’s poles, people in the southern hemisphere experience the shortest day of the year and its longest night. This night, the last night of the ninth month of the solar calendar, December 21st, is a very special occasion for Persians around the world. They call it Shab-e Yalda.
The Roots of Yalda Night Celebration
Where do the Yalda Night traditions come from? It seems like this time of the year has always been special to Persians. Based on ancient stories, Yalda night is a Zoroastrian tradition to protect people from the evil forces that dominate the darkest night of the year. And it is a dedication to the Persian mythological god Mithra! As the god of light, warmth, and friendship, Mithra brings light into people’s lives. The word Yalda comes from the Syriac language, meaning the birthday of the sun (Mithra). To overcome the darkness of the longest night of the year, in the name of Mithra, ancient Iranians gathered together in the safety of groups of friends and family. They stayed awake until dawn and celebrated the birth of Mithra after the longest darkness. The word Yalda also means dark night in Arabic!
The Aura of Shab-e Yalda
Imagine a cold night when all the family members are gathered around Korsi, a short table covered with a red velvet blanket and a heater underneath. Hiding their feet under the warmth of the blanket, the family is laughing, telling stories, reading poetry, and enjoying all the delicious snacks set on the Korsi. This is the Shab-e Yalda celebration the elder Persian generations remember. Today, to Iranians, Yalda night is a celebration of their roots and a night of joyful company. It is the night when they gather together in groups of friends and family, often at their grandparents’. They make arrangements to make the night as warm and traditional as they can. If they can, they set up a Korsi. If they can’t, they set a lovely Yalda night table. They preferably cover the table, with Termeh (traditional Persian textile). Bless it with a book of Hafez’s poetry. Light some candles. And then load it with a lot of fruits and snacks. Besides a lot of chatter, laughter, and eating, they read poems, and tell stories.
Yalda Night: A Celebration for Foodies
Just like Thanksgiving, food is a BIG deal for Yalda night. This is the night when Iranians used to share the last remaining fruit from summer. And this is the night now Iranians let go and stuff themselves to their heart’s content! One of the essential items on Yalda night table is watermelon. The reason is that, from the good old days, Iranians believed that beginning winter by eating summer fruits will save one from falling ill during the cold season. Also, pomegranates, which symbolize fertility, rebirth, and the cycle of life in Persian culture, also bless the Yalda table with their red color. Iranians serve them with dried mint and salt, or use them in cakes, desserts, and special Yalda dishes. Nuts and dried fruit also add color and taste to Chelleh night table.
A nice dinner that traditionally includes pomegranates and walnuts is also a part of Yalda gatherings. So, conventionally served at this night are Aush-e Anar, Fesenjoon, Anar polo, or Nardoon. Today, a Shab- e Yalda gathering is not complete to a modern Persian family without all the colorful food on the Yalda table (or Korsi). Persians also care a lot about decorating the Yalda food and table.
Yalda, A Night of Poetry, Legend, and Culture
To pass the longest night of the year in the company of friends and family, Iranians found ways to not only connect with their roots, but also make it fun and pleasant! The most favorite Yalda Night pastime, I mean the most favorite after the eating (LOL), is reading the poetry of Hafez and having a Fal. What is a Fal? Iranians believe in fortune telling with opening the Divan of Hafez! They close their eyes, clasp their hands together, ask the poet to show them their fortune, and open a page. Persians also recite the poems of Shahnameh, the book of Persian epic and legend. The elders of the family also tell tales and anecdotes of the past. Certain parts of Iran have their own unique traditions for celebrating the night.
Red is the Yalda Night Theme
As a symbol of happiness, the sun, and the glow of life in Persian culture, red is the dominant color in Yalda Night Festival. From the red color of watermelon and pomegranates, to the red blanket thrown on the Yalda Korsi and the red clothes Persians wear for the occasion, red is the definite theme for the deep-rooted gathering.