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Yalda: A Culture of Communal Love

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Nour Rida

Family remains to be a central element in Iran’s culture, and the Yalda night; which is celebrated across Iran and some of its neighboring countries is a special night where members of the extended family get together.

Yalda roots in ancient Persia

Yalda is one of the most ancient Persian festivals, which dates back to the time of Zoroastrianism; a religion that the majority of Iranians followed before Islam. On Yalda festival, ancient Iranians used to celebrate the arrival of winter, the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness. The Syriac word for birth, Yalda, is another name for Shab-e Chelleh (the fortieth night or the night of the height). And since it is the longest night in the year that denotes the beginning of winter, it is the night when ancient Iranians celebrated the birth of the goddess of light. 

Also, ancient Persians believed that evil forces were dominant on the longest night of the year and that the next day belonged to the god of Wisdom, Ahura Mazda. There would be feasts, acts of charity and prayers performed to ensure the total victory of sun--essential for the protection of winter crops.

Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and some Caucasian states such as Azerbaijan and Armenia share the same tradition and celebrate Yalda Night annually at this time of the year.

Iranian culture is very rich with different ceremonies that designate different things, but the most two perhaps important are Yalda and Nowruz, and both are related to nature, the rebirth of nature, and basically are a great time for big family get-togethers.

Family members meet, and the ceremony is usually hosted at the house of the eldest member. Elements that have survived throughout history on the Yalda table, which initially was due to their symbols and what they stand for include: pomegranates, watermelons and nuts. Ancient Iranians believed that those who eat summer fruits with the beginning of the winter would not fall ill during the season and this is why watermelon is a major element of the night. The bright outer covering of a pomegranate symbolizes birth or dawn, and their bright red seeds the glow of life.

Food plays a central role in any form of the celebrations in Iran. In most parts of the country the extended family come together and enjoy a fine dinner. The main dish of the night, is Fesenjan, the rich, tangy Iranian chicken stew with walnuts and pomegranate. However, each city in Iran has its own traditions regarding the type of food to be served for dinner at Yalda night.

Yalda: tradition that richens the culture, family ties

Two of the traditions of Yalda night that have been added in recent centuries is the recitation of the classic poetry Divan of Hafez and verses of the Holy Quran. It is also seen as a day when all gather to thank God for all their blessings and to pray for prosperity for the coming year. On Yalda night, the oldest member of the family says prayers expressing gratitude to God for previous year's blessings, and prays for prosperity in the coming year, and the other members of the family pray along. After praying, the oldest member cuts the watermelon which symbolizes the removal of sickness and pain from the family, and gives everyone a share.

Dr. Elaheh, who is not spending the night with family this year for being outside the city for work, told al-Ahed news that “Literally speaking, Yalda means the beginning of the year to me, because ancient Iranians would consider winter to be the beginning of the year and the first season of the year. It was correlated to the God of Sun, which symbolized justice and kindness.” 

This is not Dr. Elaheh’s first time to spend it away from home. “I used to live far away from my family because I was following up on my higher education. At the dorms, we used to celebrate the night together as girls, gathering in one room, chatting, eating watermelon, pomegranate, and nuts. I think it is an integral part of Iranian culture. All the Iranian community, I believe, see it as a special night to be spent with family and loved ones.”  

Setareh, who rushed to buy a ticket to be able to make to Esfahan where her family live told al-ahed news “To me, Yalda means family reunion, fruits and nuts, laughter, poems and memories. It is a time for reconciliation. It means that winter is coming and our hearts need warmth, and every minute spent next to loved ones matters.”

Seyed Mohamad Marandi, Professor at Tehran University and prominent political analyst told al-ahed for his part that “The night of Yalda is a night when people go and visit their elders, often there is some reading of the Quran. People read Hafez poetry too. Of course Iran is a big country so there are different traditions across the country. People bring different fruits and drinks. They sit together, and it is a part of Iranian tradition. It is something that everyone that I know takes into consideration, so there is preparation for that evening and these gatherings are very wide spread. However again traditions might differ in the different types of communities.”

On whether or not this tradition should be stopped since it is not an Islamic one, Professor Marandi said “I think the opposition to culture and cultural diversity is something we see in Salafi Islam, where they somehow think that everyone has to be identical in what they wear and how they look, and that everything must look the same in order to be Islamic.”

He added “I think that the diversity which exists across Iran, the region, the Islamic world and the non-Islamic world is something to be celebrated, unless it is something that is against Islam or humanity. This is a local tradition that richens the culture, and what people do on this night is also associated with Islam, seeing your parents, meeting relative, respecting the elders, reading the Quran, reading Hafez which is one of the greatest Islam-oriented poets in history.”

Now Dr. Zeinab, who is a lecturer at the Iranian studies department at Tehran University and Professor of North American studies, she shared a lot of the ideas on how Yalda is the longest night where family reunions take place and a lot of eating, chatting, and reading Hafez poetry takes place. She however added that there has been a commercialization of the tradition, with more elements added including different accessories and decoration items. “The tradition is still very much alive even though some of its manifestations change over time.”

Yalda night, for centuries served as a social occasion, and was officially added to Iran's List of National Treasures during a special ceremony back in 2008. This night is a time for everyone to get together, draw a smile on each other’s faces, it is all about good deeds, respect to family, spending times that bring delight to the heart and most importantly; another reason for societal integration.

Source: Al-Ahed News