Sunday, January 17, 2010
Shab'e Yalda or Shab'e Chelle is an Iranian festival originally celebrated on the Northern Hemisphere's longest night of the year, that is, on the eve of the Winter Solstice. Following the Iranian calendar reform of 1925, which pegged some seasonal events to specific days of the calendar, Yalda came to be celebrated on the night before and including the 1st day of the 10th month. Subject to seasonal drift, this day may sometimes fall a day before or a day after the actual Winter Solstice.
Following the fall of the Sassanid Empire and the subsequent rise of Islam, the religious significance of the event was lost, and like all the other Zoroastrian festivals Yalda became merely 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.
The winter solstice has been celebrated for centuries and refers to the birthday or rebirth of the sun. Yalda is a Syriac word and means birth. The ceremony is traced to the primal concept of Light and Good against Darkness and Evil in the ancient Iranian religion. This night with Evil at its zenith is considered unlucky. The last day of the Persian month of 'Azar' is the longest night of the year. From this day forward, Light triumphs as the days grow longer and give more light. This celebration comes in the Persian month of 'Day', which was also the name of the pre-Zoroastrian creator god (deity).
The Persians adopted their annual renewal festival from the Babylonians and incorporated it into the rituals of their own Zoroastrian religion. The occasion was celebrated in the festival of 'Daygan' dedicated to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. 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 honored and prayers performed to ensure the total victory of the 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 deity responsible for protecting "the early morning light", known as 'Havangah'. It was also assumed that Ahura Mazda would grant people's wishes.
In the evening of Shab’e Yalda bonfires are lit outside, while inside the home, family and friends gather in a night-long vigil around the korsi. A brazier with hot coals is placed under the table. In the past, fruit and vegetables were only available in season and the host, usually the oldest in the family, would have carefully saved grapes, honeydew melons, watermelons, pears, oranges, tangerines, apples, and cucumbers. These were then enjoyed by everyone gathered around the korsi, or a fireplace.
On this night, the oldest member of the family says prayers, thanking God for previous year's blessings, and prays for prosperity in the coming year. Then he cuts the melon, and the watermelon and gives everyone a share. The cutting symbolizes the removal of sickness and pain from the family. Snacks are passed around throughout the night: pomegranates with angelica powder and Ajil-e shab-e yalda, a combination of nuts and dried fruits, particularly pumpkin and watermelon seeds and raisins. This mixture of nuts literally means night-grazing; eating nuts is said to lead to prosperity in days to come. More substantial fare for the night's feast include eggplant stew with plain saffron-flavored rice, rice with chicken, thick yogurt, and halva. The foods themselves symbolize the balance of the seasons: watermelons and yogurt are eaten as a remedy for the heat of the summer, since these fruits are considered cold; and halva is eaten to overcome the cold temperatures of winter, since it is considered hot. On into the night of festivities the family keeps the fires burning and the lights glowing to help the sun in its battle against darkness. They recite poetry and play music, tell jokes and stories, until the sun, triumphantly reappears in the morning.