Identity: Yalda


Celebrate Yalda/Christmas!



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2005. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


Let’s now celebrate Yalda, the rebirth of the sun on the longest night of the year (Shab-e Chelleh)! Marking Yalda is important for Iranian-Americans because Christmas is the season of special identity crisis for them as for other  non-Christians in the United States. We will gain from an affirming celebration of our own. And how felicitous that the mainstream American holiday of Christmas is in fact rooted in our Yalda. As we, in turn, inherited much of this tradition from the Babylonians and others, to honor Yalda now is to rejoice in the syncretic heritage of all humanity. Thus, in proclaiming our ethnic contribution we gain acceptance; and that is the best way for us to enter and stay on the public stage of our adopted land.

A History of Shared Roots

Christmas, an occasion to celebrate the birth of Christ, has evolved into an increasingly secular holiday in the United States. The last decade has witnessed the devolution of Christianity itself as the number of church- goers fell dramatically. But God is not dead in this country. Indeed, recent surveys indicate that more than ninety percent of Americans believe in God. They just choose more diversified connections to God. They watch televised religious services, and they buy books. The phenomenal sale of works by and on Rumi  (Molavi), the Islamic mystic Sufi, demonstrates the quest for still newer paths, as did the prior intense interest in Buddhism.

That is to be expected in a culture enriched by immigrants of many lands and increasingly interconnected by the web of revolutionary technologies. In this upheaval of fundamental values and beliefs the urge to discover ancient roots is understandable. Thus, for example, Hanukkah is aggrandized, and Kwanza is reconstructed. In primordial identity we all seek to assert ourselves in the midst of a larger group that flies its exclusive banner.

There is, however, an alternative to this fragmentation, paradoxically, in the roots of Christmas itself. Historically, the time of Christmas, the Winter Solstice on December 21, was an occasion for celebration in many cultures. Ancient Egyptians marked this start of their solar year with a 12 day festival, each symbolizing a month of their calendar, using green palm shoots  for decoration.  The Babylonians also celebrated the beginning of their new year at this time by reenacting their belief that creation was order emerging from chaos. For a day, they reversed roles and let chaos rule; order was restored only at the end of the festivities. The pre-Islamic Persians incorporated these Babylonian rituals in their own Zoroastrian celebration. They treated the expiration of the longest night of the year, yalda, as the vanquishing of the evil forces of darkness by the virtuous sun. To ensure victory fires were burned all night and prayers were offered to Mithra, the deity who protected the light of the dawn.

Contemporaneously, the Romans were celebrating the Winter Solstice by the festivals of Sol Invicta (“the invincible sun”), and Saturnalia (honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture), in which they combined elements from the Persian and Egyptian rituals. Buildings were decorated with greenery and candles lighted the night; the normal order of things was suspended; temporarily, disputes were halted and the poor and rich were treated as equal.

While Sol was originally a Syrian god, from the first century A.D. the Roman cult of the sun increasingly came to be Mithraism. By the third century, the apogee of Mithraism’s popularity, Rome celebrated the 21st of December as the birthday of Mithras (the Persian Mithra). That same august date, however, was proclaimed to mark Christ’s birth when Emperor Constantine embraced the rival Christianity in the early fourth century. Until then, the Christians had celebrated the event of Christ’s birth at various dates from December to April. The further change to December 25 was made in the year 350 when the Church leaders decided that the Annunciation was on March 25. The word Christmas (Mass of Christ) was first used in 1038 A.D.

The Roman Christian festival at the Winter Solstice incorporated many of the rituals and traditions of the aforementioned existing Roman festivals. Thus emerging as a celebration of the combined values and beliefs of many peoples, Christmas has continued to absorb contributions from others, even as it evolved in a predominantly Christian culture. As the history of the inception of this great festival shows, the increasing strength of other cultural influences in the new millennium America will enhance the syncretic quality of Christmas as a holiday for all.

Contemporary Observance of Yalda

Yalda is now celebrated in Iran without much awareness of its historical roots. The festivities mark it as Shab-e Chelleh, “the evening of the forty.” That reference is to the first of the two cold forty-day periods, followed by a milder ten-day period before Noruz or “the new year” on the vernal equinox. This insightful commemoration of the winter solstice, ushering in cadence nature’s march through the season of winter, reflects the rich lore of astronomy in our heritage.

The customs we observe on Yalda are the tradition of an ancient pastoral society. The celebration is not public; it is a private family affair. Every one, including distant relatives, congregates in the home of the elder of the extended family. They stay up late into the night. They tell cherished family tales and recite Persian poetry and classical prose. They eat fresh and dried fruit and nuts. The favored fruit are watermelon, Persian melon, pomegranate, quince, and apple. The favored nuts are toasted seeds of melon, watermelon, and sunflower. The favored dried fruit (ajil shirin) are mulberry and raisin.

This is a special occasion for a prospective bridegroom to make offerings of fruit khunche to his bride. A rectangular wooden tray clothed in turmeh (cashmere) or sufreh qalamkar (calico), the khunche, loaded with colorfully wrapped fruit, is hand-carried by a man over his head to the affianced’s house.  She reciprocates with a gift of garment to her visiting future husband.

This celebratory visiting, bonhomie, and food sharing often takes place, even now, on the mattresses spread on the floor around the traditional kursi, a large square wooden stool with a coal burning brasier under it and a large quilt over it to cover the mattresses on all sides. The old Persian hearth is exceptionally comforting and protective against the cold outside. It is also an equalizer of status. As such, it recalls a venerable legend. On the day after Yalda, the kings of ancient Persia would descend from their throne in white regalia onto a white carpet spread in a field, unattended by guards and courtiers, to grant audience to the commoners. They sat with the farmers and workers, called them brothers, and broke bread with them.


This article, entitled Rich Lore of Astronomy: Yalda’s Historical roots, was published on the Website of on December 23, 2005.

    • Bob
    • July 19th, 2011

    Found your discussion both interesting and informative. I have learned much from the historical references you make. I look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Ahmad Mohyee
    • December 8th, 2011

    Describing a seemingly trifling ritual in terms of its provenance and intercultural and historical significance, this article spawns a much greater interest in the tradition and its perpetuation. I found it illuminating in several respects.

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