No one who has been in power in Iran has succeeded in changing the culture of ancient Iranians! Neither the various warlords nor Islam.
SMHI (Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute) writes: “We have learned that the longest night of the year is between 21 and 22 December, but this year, in most parts of Sweden, the longest night is on December 21st. This year the winter solstice occurs at 4:59 pm in Stockholm/Sweden.
Iranians worldwide celebrate the year’s longest night, a celebration dating back several thousand years; the festival originated in Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion in the ancient Persian Empire. Originally this was a celebration in honor of Mithra’s birth (the goddess of light). The meaning of the word Yalda is birth and was imported into the Persian language from Syriac-speaking Christians.
The celebration is so deeply rooted in the Iranian people that even Islam’s entry to Iran has been unable to change it.
In most homes, the occasion is celebrated with family and friends, and neighbors. You visit each other, eat melon and unique kind of nut mixture. If possible, people stay up all night to see the sun be born again on December 21st. Old Persians were convinced that the evil forces were strongest just during the longest night of the year, therefore gathered to guard evil together!
The nut mix consists of seven different types of dried fruit and salted and roasted nuts such as pistachios, almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc. A table is set with seasonal fruits such as pomegranates, oranges, apples, and different grapes. Watermelon is also served because people are convinced that watermelons ensure their health during the hot summer months and protect them against diseases!
The celebration varies among Iran’s different ethnic groups that have added their own traditions, but what is expected is that we are together with family and friends and EAT. My father told me once that regardless of whether we mourn or celebrate, eating is an inseparable part of our culture.
There are long queues in shops (in Sweden) where they sell all the things Iranians need for the celebration; it’s all about planning it all in good time. I buy raisins and nuts in good time. Usually, I have a big bank of nuts, raisins, and dried fruit in the freezer. If I buy raisins, I wash them first thoroughly in water, then let them dry for a day or two before mixing them with other nuts. You have no idea how “dirty” and oily the raisins are that you buy, regardless of brand.
Reciting poems also belongs to the Iranian cultural heritage; in our home, we played a game where both children and adults could participate. You read a verse, and the next person reads a verse beginning with the letter that the previous verse ended in. This meant that even though we were too little to read and write, we had learned the poems by heart, or sometimes the adults helped out by whispering verses to us. – therefore, as a child, I knew many verses that I could recite.
During the longest night of the year, Hafez’s poetry book (Divan-e Hafez) has a special place in our culture. The elder of the family holds the book, and various family members (one at a time), wish something in the almost magic silence. Then the eldest in the family prayed for Hafez’s soul. Now he opened a random page in the Divan-e Hafez, he read the poem and interpreted it for those who did not understand and could reveal events in our future. Actually, this was less predictive and more a feast for our ears, as we say in Swedish!
Examples of regional traditions: in Khorasan, there is a belief that those who eat carrots, pears, pomegranates, and green olives will be protected from harmful bites from insects, especially scorpions. To eat garlic on this night protects against pains in the joints. Placing your mouth near a donkey’s ear and whispering cures all diseases (Šakūrzāda, p. 227).
Another common practice during the longest night of the year concerns engaged young men. They send a plate containing seven different kinds of dried fruit and a variety of gifts to their fiancé on this night. In some regions, the girl and her family return the favor by sending gifts back to the young man (Enjavī, II, p. 154; Šakūrzāda, p. 228).
I’m absolutely sure Shabe Yalda has connections to the Christmas celebrations. I’ll have to do some research and get back to you about this issue.
It is also worth mentioning that this occasion is also celebrated in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan, and Macau; they call it the Dongzhi Festival. Only Macau recognizes Dongzhi as a public holiday.
Congratulations to all who celebrate the longest night of the year (Shabe Yalda)!