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Yalda Night: How Iranians Celebrate Winter Solstice

Yalda Night: How Iranians Celebrate Winter Solstice Yalda Night: How Iranians Celebrate Winter Solstice

On the eve of the first day of winter, the winter solstice, sometime between December 21 and 22, a nocturnal celebration is observed in Iran. It is generally called Yalda, or Shab-e-Chelle, for ‘chelle’ means 40, and Yalda celebration takes place 40 days prior to the Zoroastrian fire festival of Sadeh, according to the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.

 

Ceremony

The significance of Yalda has diminished over the centuries. Today, Night of Chelle or Yalda is merely a social occasion, when family and friends get together for fun and merriment, eating, drinking tea, and reciting poetry. Dried fruits, nuts, seeds and fresh winter fruits are served. The presence of dried and fresh fruits in mid-winter is reminiscence of an ancient agricultural concern about the crops of different seasons. Pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant.

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 the melon is cut and everyone is given a share. The cutting symbolizes the removal of sickness and pain from the family.

The Yalda celebration goes well into midnight. The collection of the Persian poet Hafez has a special place in this night, for the joys of love, he lauds, befit such a merry occasion.

Before modern heating facilities came to existence, family and friends gathered in a night-long vigil around ‘korsi’, a low table with a brazier of hot coals underneath.

At a time when only seasonal fruits and vegetables were available, the host, usually an elder, carefully dried and preserved grapes, honeydew melons, watermelons, pears, oranges, tangerines, and apples. These were then enjoyed by everyone gathered around the korsi, or a fireplace.

 


Rasht Bazaar

 

Eating nuts are said to lead to prosperity in days to come. More substantial fare for the night’s feast includes eggplant stew with plain saffron-flavored rice, rice with chicken, thick yogurt, and halva.

 

Hamedan

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.

 

Sanandaj

In Sanandaj, 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. If there is a pregnant woman in the neighborhood, she will surely receive a share of the pickle.


Sanandaj Bazaar

 

Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh ‘Book of Kings’, Sa’di’s Golestan, Ganjavi’s Eskandarnameh ‘Book of Alexander’ is recited. Dried fruits are cooked with sumac. Pumpkin seed and roasted wheat are mixed with tamarisk sap.

 

Qazvin

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.

 

 

Khorasan

In Khorasan Razavi and South Khorasan, the boiled syrup of soaproot plants are stirred in an earthen vessel for hours before a hard foam takes form. Then sugar or some other sweetening syrup is added to the foam. The mixture is then decorated with nuts when served on Yalda. They believe what one eats on Yalda, is a good omen throughout the year, so they bring special fruits to the table.

As for water melon, they say it removes blemishes from the liver, and bestows immunity against the extreme heat of the mid-summer.

The groom sends a collection of various fruits to the bride’s family. The fruits are set on a copper tray covered with a red cloth; they come with different other gifts such as sugar lump and sweet pastries. In return, the bride’s family places a piece of textile or a garment on the emptied tray.

 

Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari

Since the people of the province know Shahnameh by rote, on Yalda, they recite it by heart. They believe the milk, yoghurt, 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.

An exciting tradition is baking large breads locally called gerde; they put a blue bead within the dough before baking. On Yalda the gerde bread is divided between the attendants. Whoever receives the blue bead is considered the luckiest person in the family.

 

Tehran

There is an ancient saying that sometimes in summer, a hot wind brings along back-ache. One who eats water melon on Yalda will be immune to such aches. That is what old timers of Tehran believed.

Hafez’ poetry collection is much referred to on such night, especially by couples or those in hope of a passionate marriage. Walnuts are broken to see how the kernels portend their future and fortune.

 


Tajrish Bazaar, Tehran

 

Mazandaran

In Mazandaran also, Hafez and Ferdowsi’s wisdom is sought in their books. The elders tell the stories of hard, long, dark winters, before the next dawn ushers the new era of light.

After dinner they gather around a korsi, or just gather around to indulge in tea, orange, roasted peas, local pastries, raisin, sweet almond, tangerine, apple, lemon, melon, and especially water melon.

According to an old tradition, they pick walnuts blindfolded and sleep with them after the ceremony. In the morning they break the walnuts to see if the kernel is bright and sound, or dried and dark.

Grooms of Mazandaran also take advantage of the opportunity to prove themselves by sending a collection of essentials to the bride’s house. The collection include fish, fowl, and other substantial nutritionals.

 It is a famous nanny story that when mythical Nane-Sarma ‘Cold Granny’ sheds tears on this night, it would rain; if she spills out the cottons of her bedclothes, it would snow; and if she tears out her necklace, there would be hailstones.

 

Zanjan

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, Zanjanis serve their own local sweets including the famous window-shaped pastries and baqlavas. They visit their elders to kiss their hands, thus to receive blessings throughout the year.

 

Background

On Yalda, as the old year dies, rules are relaxed. As attested by the Persian polymath and historian Abu Reyhan Biruni (973 – 1048), until the fall of the Sassanid dynasty in 651 AD, a major theme of Yalda festival was a temporary subversion of orders; masters and servants reversed roles. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled into the streets; just as in Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival in honor of Saturn, the deity of sowing and seeds, who was partly identified with Mithra when the latter migrated West.

 

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