Yalda is an Iranian festival celebrated on the longest and darkest night of the year, that is, in the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice. Calendarically, it is celebrated in the night between the last day of the ninth month (Azar) and the first day of the tenth month (Dey) of the Iranian civil calendar, which corresponds to the night of December 20 or 21 each year.
The longest and darkest night of the year is a time when friends and family gather together to eat and read poetry (especially Hafez) until well after midnight. Fruits and nuts are eaten and pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant. The red color in these fruits symbolizes the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life. The poems of Divan-e-Hafez, which can be found in the bookcases of most Iranians families, are intermingled with peoples’ life and are read or recited during various occasions like this festival and at Nowruz.
The longest and darkest night of the year marks “the night opening the initial forty-day period of the three-month winter”, from which the name Chella, “forty”, derives. There are all together three 40-day periods, one in summer, and two in winter. ‘Yaldā’, is a borrowing from Syriac[rs 1] and is “connected with Christianity”. In the 1st-3rd centuries, significant numbers of Eastern Christians settled in Arsacid and Sassanid territories, where they had received protection from religious persecution. Through them, Western Iranians (i.e. Parthians, Persians etc.) came in contact with Christian religious observances, including, it seems, Nestorian Christian Yalda, which in Syriac (a Middle Aramaic dialect) literally means “birth” but was also one of the Syriac words for Christmas, which — because it fell nine months after Annunciation — was celebrated on eve of the winter solstice. Although it is not clear when and where the Syriac word was adopted into Persian, gradually ‘Shab-e Yalda’ and ‘Shab-e Cheleh’ became synonymous and the two are used interchangeably.
Shab-e Chella was officially added to Iran’s List of National Treasures in a special ceremony in 2008.
In pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition the longest and darkest night of the year was a particularly inauspicious day, and the practices of what is now known as “Shab-e Chelleh/Yalda” were originally customs intended to protect people from evil during that long night. People were advised to stay awake most of the night, lest misfortune should befall them, and people would then gather in the safety of groups of friends and relatives, share the last remaining fruits from the summer, and find ways to pass the long night together in good company. The next day (i.e. the first day of Dey month) was then a day of celebration, and (at least in the 10th century, as recorded by Al-Biruni), the festival of the first day of Dey month was known as Ḵorram-ruz (joyful day) or Navad-ruz (ninety days [left to Nowruz]). Although the religious significance of the long dark night have been lost, the old traditions of staying up late in the company of friends and family have been retained in Iranian culture to the present day.
References to other older festivals held around the winter solstice are known from both Middle Persian texts as well as texts of the early Islamic period. In the 10th century, Al-Biruni mentions an Adar Jashan festival of fire celebrated on the intersection of Azar day (9th) of Azar month (9th), which is the last autumn month. This was probably the same as the fire festival called Shahrevaragan (Shahrivar day of Shahrivar month), which marked the beginning of winter in Tokarestan. Sufism’s Chella, which is a 40-day period of retreat and fasting, is not related to winter solstice festival.
Food plays a central role in the present-day form of the celebrations. In most parts of Iran the extended family come together and enjoy a fine dinner. A wide variety of fruits and sweetmeats specifically prepared or kept for this night are served. Foods common to the celebration include watermelon, pomegranate, nuts and dried fruit like salted and roasted pistachio. These items and more are commonly placed on a korsi, which people sit around. In some areas it is custom that forty varieties of edibles should be served during the ceremony of the night of Chelleh.
Light-hearted superstitions run high on the night of Chelleh. These superstitions, however, are primarily associated with consumption. For instance, it is believed that consuming watermelons on the night of Chelleh will ensure the health and well-being of the individual during the months of summer by protecting him from falling victim to excessive heat or disease produced by hot humors. In Khorasan, there is a belief that whoever eats carrots, pears, pomegranates, and green olives will be protected against the harmful bite of insects, especially scorpions. Eating garlic on this night protects one against pains in the joints. Placing one’s mouth near a donkey’s ear and whispering into its ear is certain to cure any ailment, while mixing camel fat and mare’s milk and burning them will protect from insects the place where the smoke from this concoction penetrates.
After dinner the older individuals entertain the others by telling them tales and anecdotes. Another favorite and prevalent pastime of the night of Chelleh is divination by the Dīvān of Hafez (fāl-e Hafez). It is believed that one should not divine by the Dīvān of Hafez more than three times, however, or the poet may get angry.
Activities common to the festival include staying up past midnight, conversation, eating, reading poems out loud, telling stories and jokes and for some dancing. Prior to invention and prevalence of electricity, decorating and lighting the house and yard with candles was also part of the tradition, but few have continued this tradition. Another tradition is giving dried fruits and nuts to family and friends, wrapped in tulle and tied with ribbon.
Another tradition is giving dried fruits and nuts to family and friends, wrapped in tulle and tied with ribbon.
Another custom performed in certain parts of Iran on the night of Chelleh involves young engaged couples. The men send an edible arrangement containing seven kinds of fruits and a variety of gifts to their fiancees on this night. In some areas, the girl and her family return the favor by sending gifts back for the young man.