Yalda (yaldā) is a Syriac word meaning birth (NPer. tavvalod and milād are from the same origin). In 3rd
century CE, Mithra-worshippers adopted and used the term 'yalda' specifically with reference to the birth of
Mithra. The original Avestan and Old-Persian term for the celebration is unknown, but it is believed that in
Parthian-Pahlavi and Sasanian-Pahlavi (Middle-Persian) it was known as Zayishn (zāyīšn - birth). The New
Persian "Shab-e Cheleh Festival" is a relatively recent term. The celebration was brought to Iranian plateau by
the Aryan (Iranian) migrants around middle of the 2nd millenniums BCE, but the original date of celebration
could be reach as far as pre-Zoroastrian ear, around 3rd to 4th millennium BCE.
In most ancient cultures, including Iran, the start of the solar year has been marked to celebrate the victory of
light over darkness and the renewal of the Sun. The last day of the Iranian month of "Āzar" (November-
December) is the longest night of the year, when the forces of Ahriman (darkness) are assumed to be at their
peak. While the next day, the first day of the month of "Dey" known as "Khorram rūz" or "Khur rūz" (the day of
the sun) belongs to the creator, Ahura Mazda (the Lord of Wisdom). Since the days are getting longer and the
nights shorter, this day marks the victory of the sun over darkness, and goodness over evil. The occasion was
celebrated in the festival of "Deygān" dedicated to Ahura Mazda, on the first day of the month of "Dey"
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 Zoroastrian deities honoured 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 God Mithra (Mehr) and
feasts in his honour, since Mithra is an Ēzad (av. Yazata) and responsible for protecting "the light of the early
morning", known as "Hāvangāh". It was also belived that Ahura Mazda would grant people's wishes in that day.
One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and servants reversed roles.
The king dressed in white would change place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned and
masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. This tradition
in its original form persisted until the end of Sasanian dynasty (224-651 CE), and is mentioned by the Persian
polymath Bīruni and others in their recordings of pre-Islamic rituals and festivals.
The Egyptian and Iranian traditions merged into ancient Rome belief system, in a festival dedicated to the
ancient god of seedtime, Saturn. The Romans exchanged gifts, partied and decorated their homes with
greenery. Following the Iranian tradition, the usual order of the year was suspended. Grudges and quarrels
would be forgotten and wars interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts and schools were closed. Rich
and poor became equal, masters served slaves, and children headed the family. Cross-dressing and
masquerades, merriment of all kinds prevailed. A mock king, the Lord of Misrule, was crowned. Candles and
lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.
Another related Roman festival celebrated at the same time was dedicated to “Sol Invictus” (the Invincible
Sun) dedicated to the God Mithra. This ancient Iranian cult was spread into the Roman world by Emperor
Elagabalus (r. 218 to 222) and declared as the god of state.
With the spread of Christianity, Christmas celebration became the most important Christian festival. In the
third century various dates, from December to April, were celebrated by Christians as Christmas. January 6th,
was the most favoured day because it was thought to be Jesus's Baptismal day (in the Greek Orthodox
Church this continues to be the day to celebrate Christmas). In year 350, December 25th it was adopted in
Rome and gradually almost the entire Christian church agreed to that date, which coincided, with the Winter
solstice and the festivals, Sol Invicta and Saturnalia. Many of the rituals and traditions of the pre-Christian
festivals were incorporated into the Christmas celebration and are still observed to this date.
It is not clear when and how the word "Yalda" entered to the Persian language. The massive persecution of
early Christians in Rome which brought many Christian refugees into the Sasanian Empire and it is very
likely that these Christians introduced and popularised "Yalda" in Iran. Gradually "Shab-e Yalda" and "Shab-e
Cheleh" became synonymous and the two are used interchangeably. With the conquest of Islam the religious
significance of the ancient Iranian festivals was lost. Today "Shab-e Cheleh" is merely a social occasion,
when family and friends get together for fun and merriment. Different kinds of dried fruits, nuts, seeds and
fresh winter fruits are consumed. The presence of dried and fresh fruits is reminiscence of the ancient feasts
to celebrate and pray to the ancient deities to ensure the protection of the winter crops.
Iranian Jews, who are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country, in addition to "Shab-e Cheleh", also
celebrate the festival of "Illanout" (tree festival) at around the same time. Illanout is very similar to the Shab-e
Cheleh celebration. Candles are lit and all varieties of dried and fresh winter fruits are served. Special meals
are prepared and prayers are performed. There are also very similar festivals in many parts of Southern
Russia that are identical to "Shab-e Cheleh" with local variations. Sweetbreads are baked in the shape of
humans and animals. Bonfires are made and dances resemble crop harvesting. Comparison and detailed
studies of all these celebrations no doubt will shed more light on the forgotten aspects of this wonderful and
ancient festival, where merriment was the main theme of the festival.
Because Shab-e Yalda is the longest and darkest night, it has become to symbolise many things in Persian
poetry; separation from a beloved one, loneliness and waiting. After Shab-e Yalda a transformation takes
place - the waiting is over, light shines and goodness prevails.
' The sight of you each morning is a New Year
Any night of your departure is the eve of Yalda' (Sa'adi)
'With all my pains, there is still the hope of recovery
Like the eve of Yalda, there will finally be an end' (Sa'adi)
courtesy of: http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Celebrations/yalda.htm
Festival of Yalda - Iranian Celebration of the Longest Night of
the Year (Dec-20-21st)
Yalda also known as Shab-e Cheleh in Persian is celebrated on the eve of the first day of
the winter (December 21) in the Iranian calendar, which falls on the Winter Solstice and
forty days before the next major Iranian festival "Jashn-e Sadeh (fire festival)". As the
longest night of the year, the Eve of Yalda (Shab-e Yalda) is also a turning point, after which
the days grow longer. It symbolised the triumph of Light and Goodness over the powers of
Yalda celebration has great significance in the Iranian calendar. It is the eve of the birth of
Mithra, the Sun God, who symbolised light, goodness and strength on earth. Shab-e Yalda
is a time of joy. The festival was considered pone of the most important celebrations in
ancient Iran and continues to be celebrated to this day, for a period of more than 5000