Shabe Yalda, the festival of Yalda, is celebrated by Iranians, Kurds, Afghans, Tajiks and others, on the last day of the Persian month of Azar – which falls on December 21 or 22. It is a celebration of the longest night of the year, 40 days before what is assumed to be the end of the coldest period of winter. It dates back to Zoroastrian times and is considered a joyous occasion as it coincides with the time of year when days start getting longer.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest extant religions in the world, practiced in ancient Persia, it influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Above all else, Yalda was a celebration of light winning over darkness, commemorating the triumph of the sun god Mithra. The ancient belief has it that when the sun rises, the light shines and goodness prevails. According to professor Joel Willbush, Yalda was “a celebration dating from early in the second century BC, representing the efforts by Antiochus IV (Epiphanes 175–163) to consolidate his father’s conquests by cultural uniformity. Judea’s monotheism presented special problems, and its acceptance of the mid-winter celebration of Shab-é-Chel must have encouraged him”.
Mithraism, inspired by Persian worship of Mithra, was practiced in the Roman empire from about the first to fourth centuries, although there is considerable academic debate about the level of continuity between Persian and Greek-Roman practices.1
In ancient Persia, during Shabe Yalda, fires burnt all night and Zoroastrian worshipers prayed for the absolute victory of light over darkness, longer days and the sun, all necessary for winter crops. The myth about Mithra was popular in the Roman military, and the birth of the sun god was celebrated in much splendour by the Romans. When Christianity took over, many of the stories about Mithra were incorporated into stories about the birth of Jesus Christ. According to some historians, the birth of the sun god was combined and celebrated as Christmas.
There are two interpretations of the name Shabe Yalda – literally, night of birth. According to some experts it was imported into the Persian language by Syriac Christians and it means birth (tavalud and meelad, in contemporary Persian vocabulary, derive from it). A rival interpretation is that ‘da’ in the word ‘Yalda’ is from an Indo-European, Persian word meaning ‘birth’ so Yalda means the birth of “day, light”. For Iranians it remains a significant cultural celebration, part of pre-Islamic traditional rituals. Historians believe the Persians adopted this annual renewal festival from the Babylonians and incorporated it into the rituals of their own religion. For them it was important to stay up all night in Shabe Yalda in order to fight the forces of evil – Ahriman – who were thought to be at their most powerful during the long darkness. Keeping the fires alight all night is to ensure the defeat of the forces of evil.
According to Massoume Price, “There would be prayers to god Mithra (Mithr/Mihr/Mehr) and feasts in his honour, since Mithra is an izad (av Yazata) and is responsible for protecting ‘the light of the early morning’, known as ‘Havangah’. It was also believed that Ahura Mazda would grant people’s wishes on that day.”
The following day, the first day of the month of Day, also known as khoram rooz or khore rooz – the day of sun – belongs to the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, the ‘Lord of Wisdom’.2
Persians continue the fight against Ahriman throughout the winter, with the culmination on Charshanbeh souri, the festival of fire, on the eve of the last Wednesday before Norooz, which is celebrated on the day of the spring equinox3 and marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, usually around March 21.
Modern day celebrations of Shabe Yalda include consumption of fruits, especially fruit containing water, such as watermelon, pomegranate and grapes, as well as dried fruits and nuts. The most typical fruit to be consumed is watermelon, often kept from late summer or autumn. Water represents light, and consuming watermelon or pomegranate on the night of cella (the night of forty, or Yalda night) is supposed to bring good health and well-being.
After food, Iranian families gather to read poetry from Divan ?afe?(fal-e ?afe?). The book is used as a form of fortune telling. Everyone makes a wish, someone opens Hafez’s book of poems and reads out the 14th century poet’s response to the wish, with elders interpreting the poems.
Of course Iranians of all classes have always drunk alcohol on Shabe Yalda, and the banning of alcohol imposed by the Islamic Republic regime in Iran when it came to power almost 38 years ago has had little effect on this – except that nowadays, because of prohibition, more Iranians drink and most Iranians drink more than they used to, despite the fact that imported alcohol – as opposed to a variety of home made versions – is more expensive.
The Iranian Jewish community, who, after the Zoroastrians are the oldest extant religious community in the country, celebrate the festival of Illanout – the tree festival – at around the same time. Illanout has many similarities to Yalda: candles are lit and the celebrations include the consumption of fresh and dried fruits.
In the first years after coming to power, Iran’s clerics did their best to ban the celebration of Zoroastrian festivals, as symbols of Persian rather than Islamic culture. Norooz and Shabe Yalda were undermined, while Muslim religious festivals were promoted.
However a combination of resistance by the overwhelming majority of the population, as well as political expediency, led to a reversal of such policies. Isolated in an Islamic world dominated by Sunni Muslims, faced with a war with Saddam’s Iraq in 1980 and later a series of proxy wars with jihadist Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Shia clerics moved quickly, first to tolerance and later to promotion of Persian/Iranian ceremonies from Yalda to Norooz, even though some of the more fundamentalist clerics bow out to popular pressure with considerable resentment.
1. For more, see Beck, Roger, July 20 2002 ‘Mithraism’ Encyclopaedia Iranica online edition, retrieved March 3 2011: “The term ‘Mithraism’ is of course a modern coinage. In antiquity the cult was known as ‘the mysteries of Mithras’; alternatively, as ‘the mysteries of the Persians’. … The Mithraists, who were manifestly not Persians in any ethnic sense, thought of themselves as cultic ‘Persians’. … the ancient Roman Mithraists themselves were convinced that their cult was founded by none other than Zoroaster, who ‘dedicated to Mithras, the creator and father of all, a cave in the mountains bordering Persia’, an idyllic setting ‘abounding in flowers and springs of water’ (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 6).”
2. Massoume Price – quote from http://www.iranchamber.com/culture/articles/festival_of_yalda.php.
3. In the northern hemisphere the March equinox is known as the vernal, or spring, equinox, and in the southern hemisphere as the autumnal equinox. It is the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator.