Yalda night or Cheleh night is one of the oldest Iranian celebrations. During this night, Iranians celebrate the longest night of the year, followed by longer days in the Northern Hemisphere, which coincides with the winter solstice. Yalda night is called between the sunset of 30 Azar (the last day of autumn) to the sunrise on the 1st of Dey (the first day of winter). On Yalda night, Iranian families usually prepare and serve a sumptuous dinner as well as a variety of fruits, most commonly watermelon and pomegranate. In this celebration, serving snacks, reading Shahnameh (the great Iranian mythology), storytelling by other family members to other family, as well as divination with Hafez’s Divan are common.
“Yalda Night”, was one of the holy nights in ancient Iran; and it officially included in the official calendar of the ancient Iranians from 502 BC during the time of Darius I. The festivities that take place on this night are an ancient tradition.
People of ancient times, were accustomed to the passing of seasons and natural contradictions throughout the year due to experience. They did their work and activities by rotating the sun and changing seasons and heights.
They noticed that in some seasons the days were very long; and as a result, in those days, they could use more sunlight. The belief arose that the light and brightness of the sun were a symbol of goodness and agreement; and that they were in battle with the darkness of the night! Ancient people, including Aryans and Indo-Europeans, found that the shortest days are the last days of autumn and the first night of winter; and immediately after that, the days gradually get longer and the nights shorter. So they called this night, “The night of sun’s birth (Mehr)”; and made it the beginning of the year.
Many people think that Nowruz was Iranians new year from the beginning; but our original new year was Yalda night and Nowruz became our new year after Cyrus the Great Achaemenid king conquered babel.
Darkness was the representative of the devil; and because on the longest night of the year, the devilish darkness is more, this night was unlucky for the Iranians. So through the history Iranians lit fires to destroy the darkness and the devil and evil perpetrators and flee on Yalda night! People gathered and spent the night together. They ate freshly seasoned fruit and dried fruits, drank, rejoiced, danced, talked, and read.
As we mentioned, the history f Yalda night goes back to the belief of sun’s birth. And the word “Yalda” is derived from a Syriac word meaning birth. Syriac has been the common language of Christians. We don’t exactly know how the word Yalda entered to the Persian language. But the closet guess to reality goes back to the time of history when the Roman Christians decided to migrate to Iran, most people think that this is how the word “Yalda” entered to Persian language due to the proximity of cultures from this migration.
The word “Shab-e Cheleh” (Cheleh night), which is used in the popular culture synonymous with the night of Yalda, is due to the fact that the first forty days of winter are called “Cheleh-e-Bozorg”. In ancient times the ancient calendar had a division of 40 among the farmers. There are two chronological positions during a solar year with the functions of popular culture. One of them is at the beginning of summer (July), and the other at the beginning of winter (December); and each of them consist of two major parts:
1. Cheheleh bozorg (forty days) and 2. Cheheleh koochak (twenty days). The word Cheleh is derived from “Chehel” (Persian word for “forty”); and merely indicates the passage of a certain period of time (and not necessarily forty days). And as Yalda night is in the beginning of the Cheleh bozorg of winter, Iranians also call it by the name Cheleh night.
They called Yalda’s table “Myazd”. And included fresh and dried fruits, as well as nuts on this table. In the rituals of ancient Iran, for every ritual ceremony, they had a table. And you could see instruments and tools of prayer, such as fireplaces, perfumers, eater, Barsam, etc. in addition to a special food of the ritual and seasonal products and various foods.
Today, only Zoroastrians put instruments and tools of prayer on their Yalda table. But all Iranians design their Yalda table with fruit, nut and candles; and most of us put a Hafez divan (poem book of Hafez, the great Iranian poet) on their table too.
In general, foods such as nuts, pomegranate, watermelon, vegetable pilaf with fish and sometimes aush, along with drinking red wine are all traditions that bring Iranian families together on Yalda night. Pomegranate and watermelon are the most important prerequisites for Yalda night. Also, dried fruits such as peach and apricot are popular on Yalda night in Iran.
For the ancestors of the Iranians who were attached to the ritual of Mehr, the color red (symbol of sunlight) was cherished. The red color of pomegranate and watermelon and the selection of red apples and elm on the Yalda dinner table refers to this issue.
As we mentioned before, Iranians eat, dance, eat and drink on this night. But what do we read? What do we eat and drink? Keep reading to find out!
Shahnameh is the great Iranian mythology; and it is a tradition that the elderly member of the family reads on or two poems of this book for the other members. Also schools, hold ceremonies on the occasion of Yalda night, and Shahnameh reading in addition to handicraft making, writing and anthem performance is the main part of these programs.
In addition to reading Shahnameh, on the night of Yalda, families gather together and listen to the poetry and storytelling of the elderly members. Unreal and small stories whose heroes are fairies, demons and animals, and surely every child will hear it. It is pleasant and attractive!
And depending on the culture of each city or province, stories related to themselves are narrated, for example, the story of Hussein Kurd Shabestari is common among Azerbaijanis; and the stories of Shahnameh are common among Khorasanians.
It is customary for the family to recite the Divan of Hafez on this great night; and the people of taste and poetry will recite their poems for others. In general, these are customs that remain from the ancient culture of Mehr among the people and are renewed every year with the night of Yalda.
In some parts of Iran, divination by other methods is common. For example, in some areas, people use watermelon skin for divination. The person who wants to divination makes an intention, then throws 4 pieces of watermelon skin behind their head. If it was two pieces of white and two pieces of green, then its intention is middle. If it was three pieces of green and one piece of white, it means that it’s intention is good; and if it was three pieces of white and one piece of green, it means that its intention will be bad.
During the history Iranians always drank wine on Yalda night. But after most population of Iran, became muslims this habit was banned. But non muslims (Armenians and Zoroastrians) still drink wine on this night. Because red, is the color of this ceremony and the symbol of fire; so eating and drinking anything red colored is important holy.
There are lots of delicious foods that Iranians eat in Yalda night. But the combination of grape syrup and snow might be something weird to eat! As you know Yalda night is coincided with the first day on winter. So snowing is very common on this night. If it’s not very polluted and snows on this night, people go outside, take a little snow and eat it with grape syrup!
Since lighting a fire was a symbol of light and the sun in the eyes of the ancients, and some also knew it to remove the darkness and evil of the devil; so to escape the darkness and the forces of the devil, they lit a fire to create a warm circle. Ancient Iranians used to sit next to this fire, drank wine and danced together. And if you go to cities like Yazd, that lots of Zoroastrians live there, you’ll see people still doing this.
But as the society got more modern and people started living in small houses and apartments, they stopped lighting fire and throw “Korsi” instead. To throw Korsi they put a heating device under a big table and throw a thick blanket on it; then everyone will sit around the table under the blanket to get warm. The Korsi table, will also be the table of Yalda; So everyone can also easily reach to different kinds on delicious foods on Ylada night!
What is your opinion about Yalda night? Was Yalda night’s history interesting for you? Let us know! And while you’re commenting your opinion, let us know your favorite food of Yalda night too!