Celebrating Iran’s Longest Night of the Year: Yalda

Madi Jahangir * – The typical tradition is to seek forgiveness for Hafez, the prominent Iranian poet, reciting  few verses of Quran in his memory and opening his poetry book. Meanwhile, watermelon, nuts and pomegranates are served for the guests to celebrate the arrival of Capricorn. The ceremony manifests the concept of lightness prevailing over darkness in the last night of Fall which is the longest night of the year, Yalda.

Yalda Table / Photo: Mehdi Motamed

Yalda Table in Qazvin / Photo: Mehdi Motamed

The word Yalda is Syriac, means Birth. The origin of the ceremony dates back to ancient Persia (nowadays Iran), to the time that Mithraism had already influenced Zoroastrian religion. Ancient people believed that Yalda, the longest night of year is the night in which the light overcomes darkness and gives birth to the Sun. That was also considered the reason that days after Yalda would become longer than the days before.

Yalda table at Kahrizak Charity foundation / Photo: Hossein Esmaeili

Yalda table at Kahrizak Charity foundation, Tehran / Photo: Hossein Esmaeili

Longest night of the year was celebrated by other nations too, but with different names. For example around 4000 years ago in Egypt and ancient Greece there were similar festivals held in last day of Fall. Decorating the tree with a star on top in Christmas which is sign of Mithra or the guiding star and the word Noel which is a roman word for Birth, might have been taken from the Yalda celebrations in Mithraism. Papa Noel’s hat is also so similar to Zoroastrian priests’ hat which were worn in Yalda festival. 1

There might not be many Iranians nowadays who are aware of the accurate origins of Yalda. However, they take the opportunity to hold a family party and enjoy spending time with loved ones throughout the night.

Nuts for Yalda / Photo: Mohammad Reza Ali Madadi

Nuts for Yalda at a Tehran’s market / Photo: Mohammad Reza Ali Madadi

Most of the time, all relatives gather at the place of the eldest one in the family. At the house of Iranian grandma, nothing is more comforting that the singing sound of samovar and the pleasant smell of tea spreading throughout the home. Watermelon and pomegranates are consumed more than every other fruits. Some believe if you eat watermelon at Yalda, you won’t be hurt by the diseases and coldness of the coming winter. Pomegranates, placed on top of a fruit basket, are reminders of the cycle of life, the rebirth and revival of generations. 2

Pomegranates for Yalda sale / Photo: Mohammad Reda Ali Madadi

Pomegranates for Yalda sale / Photo: Mohammad Reda Ali Madadi

Often well through the mid night, guests read Hafez poetry, each opens the poetry book after reciting some supplications. This is a common belief in Iran that Hafez had memorised Quran and could recite it in 14 ways. For that matter, there are many Quranic phrases in his poetry and they have made his poems very codified, implying an esoteric meaning for each line. The fun part of Yalda night is when people try to interpret poems, guess the events in the coming year and discover the solutions for the current issues.

Reading Hafez poetry / Photo: Mehdi Motamed

A family in Qazvin reading Hafez poetry / Photo: Mehdi Motamed

Obviously nobody can predict the future except God. Yalda is no more a religious ceremony after all. It is rather a cultural blend, a combination of Iranian rich heritage pre and post Islam. In Yalda, the longest night of the year, friends and family gather together for apparently just one minute longer than the previous night to appreciate God for today’s blessing and to pray for tomorrow’s prosperity.

* Madi Jahangir is Editor in Chief at DreamOfIran.com. You can find us on Twitter @DreamOfIran and Facebook.

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