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Saturday, 21 December 2013 14:42

Yalda in ancient times

Yalda in ancient times

Zayeshmehr, also known as Yalda and Shab-e Chelleh in Persian, is celebrated on the eve of the first day of the winter (December 21-22) in the Iranian calendar.

It falls on the winter solstice and 40 days before the next major Iranian festival Jashn-e Sadeh (Fire Festival).
As the longest night of the year, Zayeshmehr is also a turning point, after which the days grow longer. It symbolized the triumph of light and goodness over the powers of darkness, Cais-soas reported.

Ancient beliefs

Yalda has great significance in the Iranian calendar. It is the eve of the birth of Mithra, the sun god, who symbolized light, goodness and strength on earth.
Shab-e Zayeshmehr is a time of joy. The festival was one of the most important celebrations in ancient Iran, which has continued to be celebrated even after more than 5,000 years.
Yalda is a Syriac word meaning birth in the 3rd century CE and 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 Sassanian-Pahlavi (Middle-Persian) languages it was known as Zayish (birth of Mithra).
The New Persian “Shab-e Chelleh Festival” is a relatively recent term. The celebration was brought to Iranian plateau by the Aryan (Iranian) migrants around the middle of 2nd millennium BCE, but the original date of celebration could date back to as far as pre-Zoroastrian era, around 3rd to 4th millennium BCE.
In ancient 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 Azar (December 21) 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, which is known as Khorram rouz or Khor rouz (the day of the sun, December 22) symbolizes the creator.
Since the days are getting longer and nights shorter, this day marks the victory of the sun over darkness and goodness over evil.
The occasion was celebrated in the festival of Deygan dedicated to the lord, on the first day of the month of Dey.
Yalda rituals

In ancient times, bonfires would be burnt all night to ensure the defeat of the forces of evil. There would be feasts, acts of charity and prayers performed to ensure the total victory of 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 responsible for protecting “the light of the early morning” known as ‘Havangah’. It was also assumed that the lord would grant people’s wishes, especially those seeking an offspring, if they performed all the rites on this occasion.
One of the themes of the feast was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in white would change place with ordinary people.
Grudges and quarrels were forgotten and wars were suspended. Businesses, courts and schools were closed.
Rich and poor became equal, masters served slaves and children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, as well as merriment of all kinds prevailed.
A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled into the streets. In fact, most rules of ordinary living were relaxed. This tradition persisted till the Sassanid rule, and is mentioned by Birouni, a polymath from Khwarazm, and others in their recordings of pre-Islamic rituals and feasts.
The Egyptian and Persian traditions merged in ancient Rome in a festival to the ancient god of seedtime, Saturn. The Romans exchanged gifts, partied and decorated their homes with greenery.


Yalda Night is a social and cultural feast that should be preserved. The younger generation should be reminded of the benefits of such a feast.
The recitation of verses from the holy Qur’an and Divan (anthology) of eminent classical poet Hafez lends spiritual weight to the occasion and should not be forgotten.
People partake of fruits like watermelon and pomegranates, as well as nuts and sweets.
The Iranian Jews, who are among the oldest inhabitants of the country, also celebrate Illanout (Tree Festival) at around the same time, in addition to the Yalda rituals.
Yalda Night, however, has come to symbolize many things in Persian poetry: separation from a beloved one, loneliness and waiting.
After the night passes, a transformation takes place: the waiting ends, light shines and goodness prevails.

Source: Iran Daily

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