One of the most ancient Persian festivals is Shab-e Yalda or Yalda Nights. All Iranian around the world celebrate this night with their families and friends on the 21st of December.
What is the meaning of Yalda night?
Shab-e Yalda, "Night of Birth", or Zayeshmehr, "Birth of Mithra", or Shab-e Chelleh is the Iranian winter solstice celebration which has been popular since ancient times.
When does Yalda celebrate?
Yalda is celebrated on the Northern Hemisphere's longest night of the year, that is, on the eve of the Winter Solstice. Depending on the shift of the calendar, Yalda is celebrated on or around December 20 or 21 each year.
In addition to Iran, Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and some Caucasian states such as Azerbaijan and Armenia share the same tradition and celebrate Yalda Night annually at this time of the year.
Why people celebrate Yalda night?
People celebrate Yalda Night for different reasons, the arrival of winter, the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness.
People in ancient times knew that from the first day of winter on, days get longer and nights get shorter gradually. What’s more, they knew darkness as a symbol of evil.
So, in fact, they considered the first morning after Yalda the day of victory of the sun and light over darkness and evil powers and celebrated it at this festival.
Participating at Yalda Event is an unforgettable experience that will be with you all your life.
Here is all you need about Shab-e Yalda, the celebration of the longest night of the year.
Read more: All you need about Persian traditions
The History of Shab-e Yalda
The ancient Persians depended on agriculture for their livelihood and had to plant and gather according to the change of seasons. By experience, they learned that the longer days and warm rays of the sun helped their crops and the gathering months brought shorter days and longer nights.
They discovered that after what was the longest night of the year the daylight hours started to get longer.
The Mithraists believed that Mithra, the Persian god of light and truth, was born to a virgin mother in the morning of the longest night of the year, Yalda. It was said that Mithra was born out of the light that came from within the Alborz Mountains, symbolizing the Sun god overcoming darkness power.
Ancient Iranians known as 'Yar-e Ghar', cave mates, gathered in caves throughout the night to witness this miracle together at dawn.
How is Yalda night nowadays?
Nowadays Yalda has become a social occasion when friends and family gather to eat, drink, tell stories and read poetry, especially Hafiz, until dawn.
Following the fall of the Sassanid Empire and the subsequent rise of Islam in Iran, the religious significance of the event was lost, and like other Zoroastrian festivals, Yalda became a social occasion when family and close friends would get together.
Nonetheless, the obligatory serving of fresh fruit during mid-winter is reminiscent of the ancient customs of invoking the divinities to request protection of the winter crop.
How Iranian Celebrate Yalda Night?
In Yalda Night families gathered around, eat fruits like watermelon and pomegranate, nuts and some sweets.
Some people believed that forty types of fruits or food should be served and eat at Yalda. It is believed that eating watermelons on the night of Chelleh will ensure health and well-being.
One of the traditions at Shab-e Yalda is divination by the Dīvān of Hafez (fāl-e Hafez). In the Persian tradition, whenever one faces a difficult or a fork in the road, or even if one has a general question in mind, one would hold that question in mind, and then ask the Hafeze Shiraz for guidance.
Traditionally, the first line upon which the eyes of the reader fall, would give the answer to the direct question, and the rest of the Ghazal would give further clarification.
Read more: All about Hafiz and Fal-e Hafiz
How does Yalda table and decoration look like?
Nuts (ajil), and dried fruit (khoshkbar) are eaten on Iranian Yalda night. The special foods that are prepared for this night change from family to family and also depend on the availability of ingredients in different regions of Iran.
The variety is endless but to mention a few: Mahi Polo, Fesenjoon, Khoresh Bademjan, Aash Reshteh, and traditional desserts such as Fereni and Sholeh Zard may be prepared for this night.
Among all the edibles, eating fruits such as watermelons, pomegranates, red apples, pears, persimmons, and cooked beets are very popular.
The first three items are the most important ones. In the pre-Islam period, when Mithraism was practiced by Persians, red color was a symbol of the sun due to associating the color of dawn.
So, it can be the color of these fruits that make them the integral parts of this tradition.
How people celebrate Yalda night in different regions in Iran?
In Khorasan, people on the night of Yalda turned their attention to special “Valentine’s Day”, and they specially packed it during a special celebration and celebrated the Yalda Night.
Another ceremony that was held this night in Khorasan was the ceremony of Shahnameh, where elders of the party were engaged in songwriting and reading Shahnameh.
Also, in the southern parts of Khorasan, this evening, they will celebrate the feast with two tears and three tears. One of the other foods that grow in Khorasan on the night of Yalda is “Baked Butter”, which is a very popular beet.
In Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan Province, dolma and sangak bread is prepared for Yalda. Each year, as agreed between the families, the ceremony takes place in a different house.
From a few months before Yalda, grape clusters are hung in basements or under the shade. They pickle some small melons native to Sarab Qamish Village and preserve them for Yalda.
Read more: All you need about Iranian culture
If there is a pregnant woman in the neighborhood, she will surely receive a share of the pickle.
Over the ages, Yalda has evolved and localized in every part of the country. In Hamedan, a female elder of the family recites poetry, while young girls needle a clean uncut cloth.
The recited verses are taken as fortune-telling for the attendants, with respect to their sitting position.
Smoked fish and sabzi-polau ‘vegetable rice’ is a customary dish of the night in Qazvin. A present, ‘khonche-chelle’ is sent from the groom to his bride on such a night. It includes clothes, jewelries, sugar lumps, and 7 different fruits.
Since the people of the province know Shahnameh by rote, on Yalda, they recite it by heart. They believe the milk, yogurt, cheese, sesame, pumpkin, sugar beet in curd, infused thyme, and barley bread served on Yalda will bring prosperity throughout the year.
Large red pumpkins which symbolize the sun, are boiled, cut to pieces, and served in curd potage.
Zanjan is among the few places where ‘korsi’ has still practical usage; and wherever there is a korsi, there will be a memorable gathering. On Yalda, local people serve their own local sweets including the famous window-shaped pastries and baklava.
They visit their elders to kiss their hands, thus to receive blessings throughout the year.
The beauty of Yalda in Lurestan Area starts right after the sunset when young people would go on the neighbors’ rooftops and start singing the “Shov-e Avval-e Qāreh” song, where they would hang a scarf from the rooftop of the neighbor’s house, asking them for treats.
As noted, there is a specific song for this act which translates to “O people of this house! upon God’s will, this household will be blessed and the elderly in your house won’t die. Give some treats to this little boy/girl”.
In Tabriz, street musicians are known as “Ashiq” walk around neighborhoods while singing, playing music, telling legends and stories.
In Azerbaijan, Yalda is usually the time of the year where locals practice the habit of taking life easier in the following year.
Today, some people celebrate Yalda Night at public places such as restaurants. At these places, you can find all the traditions and customs the same as what people have at their homes.
So, if you are traveling to Iran during Yalda Night and would like to participate in this event, you can simply write to us, and we make a reservation at one of the best restaurants in town, so you could enjoy your night.