Yalda Night is the name of the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere.
The contour between the sunset of Azar 30th (December 21th, the last day of autumn) and the sunrise of the first of Dey (December 22th, the first day of winter) is accurately the longest night.
Iranians and many other tribes celebrate Yalda. In the Northern Hemisphere, this night coincides with the winter solstice. It means the days start to get longer and the nights shorter. In the mythical world and polytheism, people celebrated Yalda because the light (sun) finally defeats the darkness (the night). From a scientific aspect, people who worked on farmland, and in ancient Iran that considered a large population, honored the days becoming longer with the perspective of getting close to Spring.
The word “Yalda” means “birth.” The ancient Iranians believed that the radiance of divine light increases and held a glamorous celebration for it. Sun in Persian is Mihr, and this Mihr is the same Mithra who was the popular god before Ahura Mazda. Mithra traveled with the sun to see everyone and everything, so tome after time sun became Mithra himself.
We know that after Zoroastrianism became the official religion of Iran, Mithraism did not fade under the mighty shadow of Zoroastrianism. Some elements held their ground, and the others traveled across the Persian Empire and landed in the Romans.
The Romans gave Mithraism a new spirit, and they believed that on the night of the winter solstice, Mithra, the sun, was born. There are rumors and some historical facts to back them up that Jesus was not born in December. Aloysius Lilius indeed adjusted the Gregorian Calendar to set the chronometry right by putting Christmas eve in December. However, in those days, when Christians fought their way into the Roman Empire, some parts of the old Mithraism beliefs remained in Christianity. That is why there are so many resemblances between these two belief systems, the day they were born, for instance. Christmas is only four days after Yalda.
Meanwhile, in Iran, with all the controversy with the pagans during the Sassanid era, the 10th month of the Solar Persian calendar was the second most religious month after Farvardin (Nowruz). Given that the last day of Autom is the longest night of the year, this month’s connection to the sun stands on both logic and myth, which the Sassanid had no power to reject. Yalda was celebrated long before them, and because it had ties to agriculture and how people’s lives depended on that, during the Sassanid reign, it only got richer.
The Persian solar calendar indicated that on Yalda Night, the sun rises again, and the life of the villagers connected to nature grasps a ray of hope.
After Nowruz, the second national sacred festive is Yalda. Little by little, with the villagers’ immigration and urbanization, Yalda was taken more seriously than before. It became a grand heritage from the past and a reason for all the nation to be united. As it was winter, people did not have much to do, so they joined the other members of the family. Creativity shaped new costumes like reading poetry, love stories, cherishing the moment now, and enjoying themselves. Celebrating the end of a season of struggle with nature, celebrating the ancient sun!
Paying attention to how the farmers and villagers reserved food for the harsh winter ahead and the months when no one could expect anything from the lands, may be able to explain the reason for eating nuts and snacks on Yalda Night: elm, almond, walnut, apricot kernel, Sunflower seeds, dried fruit, and raisins, and in lower-income families Cambrian hand (roasted wheat and cooked beans or semi-dried cooked lentils).
It is customary for Iranians to gather around on the night of Yalda in the head of the family’s home. In the old days, when there were no gas heaters, packages, and radiators, the Iranians used a heating device called Korsi. There was a charcoal table (Korsi) under which they placed a large, thick blanket called a quilt, and in the winter, family members gathered around it to warm themselves under the quilt.
On the Yalda Night, family members sat around the Korsi, put Yalda-specific snacks on it, and stayed up late at night, spending the night eating snacks, telling joys and symbolic stories and fairy tales.
They arrange Yalda’s special snacks on a table that is like the Haftsin table of Nowruz. Family members crave food with jokes and laughter. The head of the family tells mythical and epic stories, fortune-tellers, and they all stay up late into the night. They say that the Yalda Night is only one minute longer than other nights, but Iranians make this one minute count and spend more time together.
The most enjoyable costume of Yalda is its snacks. In almost all regions of Iran, they bake sweets of that region. Nuts like seeds and kernels of plant seeds such as almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, and walnuts are on the table of Yalda too, and we mentioned the reason above.
Among all the edible things you could find on Yalda’s table, watermelon and pomegranate are the most favorite ones. Like Christmas, Yalda is known for its red color. People wear red and decorate the table with red fruits. They say this color represents the new sun.
Pomegranate is often granulated into seeds and eaten with a combination of mint powder and salt. Each of Yalda’s dishes is considered a symbol, and placing them on the table has a special symbolic meaning.
These recent decades, Yalda’s main tradition is fortune telling by opening Hafez’s Divan. Hafez is one of the greatest Persian poets, and the Iranians believe that he reached the level of enlightenment in mysticism. Hence, he knows about the unseen world, and they consider his poems as divination.
Usually, the head of the family opens the Divan for each member and recites the poem for them. It works like this: you say praises to God Almighty and bless Hafez’s soul and make a wish in their heart. Then they open the book randomly, and the poem is the person’s fortune.
Today’s Yalda Night is more sophisticated despite the table, the usual snacks, drinks, and fruits we see watermelon-shaped cakes and biscuits, pomegranate and watermelon jellies, red velvet cakes, and gift-giving for guests in the form of Yalda’s popular elements.
A week before this festive, Yalda elements decorates all the streets and markets. Fruit and nut shops full of people, excitement, the general joy of the people, boxes of sweets in the hands of the citizens are all definite signs of getting close to Yalda.
However, in the city, you cannot see the details of Yalda unless you Iranians invite you to their home, which they would and share the joy with you.