0950 GMT June 30, 2022
Every year, as autumn turns to winter, a lot of enthusiasm is seen among Iranian people preparing to welcome one of the most important ancient celebrations of the country: Yalda Night or Shab-e Cheleh.
The festival begins on the last evening of fall and may continue until dawn on the first day of winter. Most people usually go to the home of the most senior member of their family to have fun with their relatives and loved ones.
Yalda Night is the longest night of the year, though it may be less than one minute longer than the previous night. Our ancestors used the night as an opportunity to hold one of the biggest Iranian national festivals so that people could enjoy being together and socialize with each other. It shows the importance of the family, as the main pillar of society, in the Iranian culture.
Although the origin of Yalda celebration is not known, it is observed by Iranian ethnic groups of all faiths and religions. Even non-Iranian people living in a number of our neighboring countries celebrate the festival.
Zoroastrians, who are followers of one of the oldest religions of Iran, have always had a special reputation for the way they hold this festival and other Persian celebrations. Therefore, it is believed that Yalda Night is a Zoroastrian ritual.
But the representative of Iranian Zoroastrians in Parliament has a different opinion about the issue.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Iran Daily, Esfandiyar Ekhtiari said that according to official figures, about 25,000 Zoroastrians live throughout the country, the majority of whom reside in the cities of Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz, Isfahan, Karaj, Zahedan and Ahvaz.
He added that winter was divided into two parts in ancient Iran, the first part, known as cheleh bozorg, had 40 days, which started on Dec. 22 and continued until Jan. 30. The second part, cheleh kouchak, had 20 days, which lasted from Jan. 31 to Feb. 19.
“Since ancient times, Yalda celebration has been held on the night of Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. As of the next day, the length of daylight gradually increases. The word Yalda means the birth of light. It is a word of the Syriac language, which was spoken in Persia in the long past years,” he noted.
He said that cheleh and Norouz, dating back to long before the advent of Zoroaster in Iran, are the oldest celebrations of the world. According to research, the Yalda Night ritual belongs to Mithraism. In the ritual, the creation of light is of great importance, and because the time of daylight increases as of the first day of winter, they celebrate the last night of autumn.
Mithraism is a religion based on the worship of Mithra, the god of the sun, justice, and war, in pre-Zoroastrian. Known as Mithras in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, this deity was honoured as the patron of loyalty to the emperor.
The MP continued that Mithraism was so important in ancient times that most religions and cultures of the world have special celebrations concurrent or near Yalda Night. For example, Christmas is celebrated by those following Christianity.
He said that historical evidence shows the influence of Mithraism on the Roman Empire, under which Christianity was later formed and developed. Yalda celebration influenced the formation of Christmas in this territory.
“The red-colored symbols used for Christmas were taken from Yalda Night. In Mithraism, red symbolizes sunrise and light; that is why red colored fruits including watermelons and pomegranates are known as the symbols of Yalda celebration,” the MP stated.
He added, however, that Yalda is a family celebration which was held in Iran even after the end of Mithraism. In fact, the change of religions in Iran did not affect it, because strengthening the foundation of the family is recommended in all religions.
Referring to the other customs of Yalda Night, Ekhtiari observed that Iranians have read the Shahnameh, the long epic poem by the Persian poet Ferdowsi during Yalda Night for at least the last few hundred years. Because Yalda Night is an Iranian festival and the Shahnameh is one of the symbols of the Persian culture.
“Poems of Hafez (1315-1390 CE), a Persian lyric poet, are usually recited by the elder members of the family during the night. Hafez divination is a tradition performed by people during the celebration,” he noted
Ekhtiari said that although the Yalda celebration has roots in the Iranian culture, it is also observed in countries which are under the influence of the Iranian culture including Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iraq.
He said that Yalda Night was registered nationally as an intangible cultural heritage and a dossier has been prepared for inscription of the festival on UNESCO’s List. He harbored hope that the purpose would be realized in the near future.