The Persian Celebration of the
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A variety of foodstuff that are consumed on Yalda
A variety of foodstuff that are consumed on Yalda
Yaldā also known as Shab-e Cheleh is celebrated on the eve of the first day
of the winter (December 21) in the Iranian calendar, which falls on the
Winter Solstice. It celebrates the birth of Sun god Mithra.
* 1 Historical background
* 2 Yalda ceremony
* 3 Its traditional impact
* 4 Yalda and Islam
* 5 See also
* 6 External links
The festival was considered extremely important in pre-Islamic Iran and
continues to be celebrated to this day, for a period of more than 6000
Some historians believe that the festival spread to Europe through contacts
between the Roman and Persian empires and was eventually replaced by
Christmas; a theory that accounts for the celebration of Christmas on 25
December, rather than the later date of January 6 that is believed to be the
correct date of birth of Christ by eastern orthodox church.
Yalda, a Syriac word (ܝܠܕܐ) imported into the Persian language by the Syriac
Christians means birth (tavalod and meelaad are from the same origin) and
generally refers to Christmas in the Syriac language. It is a relatively
recent arrival and it is refereed to the "Shab e Cheleh Festival" a
celebration of Winter Solstice on December 21. Forty days before the next
major 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 Invictus (Sun God) are among
the best known in the Western world.
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 sun 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 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 Dey 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
Fires would be burnt all night to ensure the defeat of the forces of Ahriman.
There would be 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 Yazat 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 traditional impact
The Persian traditions merged in ancient Rome, in a festival to the ancient
god of seed time, Saturn. The Romans exchanged gifts, partied and decorated
their homes with greenery. 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.
Another related Roman festival celebrated at the same time was dedicated to
Sol Invictus ("the invincible sun"), originally known as Mithra Originally a
Persian deity, this cult was imported by Emperor Elagabalus into 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 various dates, from December to April, were celebrated
by Christians as 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
Yalda and Islam
With the conquest of Islam the religious significance of the ancient Persian
festivals was lost. Today "Shab e Cheleh" is an important social occasion,
when family and friends get together for fun and merriment. Usually families
gather at their elders homes. 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.
As a novelty, watermelons may appear at the Korsi. The Korsi is a
traditional furniture similar to a very short table, around which the family
sit on the ground. On it, a blanket made of wool filling is thrown, people
leave their legs under the blanket. Inside the korsi, heat is generated by
means of coal, electricity or gas heaters.
The tradition of family gathering survives today in full force. Iranian
radio and television continue to have special programming for the night of
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. There are also very similar festivals in
many parts of Southern Russia that are identical to "Shab e Cheleh" festival
with local variations. Sweet breads are baked in shape of humans and
animals. Bonfires are made; dances are performed that resemble crop
harvesting. Comparison and detailed studies of all these celebrations no
doubt will shed more light on the forgotten aspects of this wonderful and
ancient festival, where merriment was the main theme of the festival.