Most of the world’s populations have important holidays that correspond to the winter solstice. From the most ancient times, people attached great importance to the winter solstice, which brings the longest and the darkest night of the year. Modern religions have incorporated this special day, but gave it a whole new meaning. Christmas is very close to the winter solstice, for instance. The Iranians have Shab-e Yalda or Yalda night.
What is Shab-e Yalda?
Shab-e Yalda (Yalda night) is a winter solstice festival whose origins can be traced back to the old Zoroastrian religion. The date of the festival is not the same every year as it is calculated according to the Solar Hirji calendar, which is the official civil calendar in the country. The Solar Hirji (SH) calendar is one of the oldest in the world. It has 12 months and 365 days, just like the Western calendar, but the Iranian New Year corresponds to the March equinox.
Shab-e Yalda is celebrated on the night between the last day of the ninth month (Azar) and the beginning of the 10th month (Dey), which is considered the first month of winter in Iran. It is around the 21st of each December.
Ever since the pagan times, people were very apprehensive when it came to the longest night of the year. It was considered a dangerous night and people gathered in large groups to await the sunrise. The Zoroastrians gave a new meaning to this night, which was thought to be particularly inauspicious. The evil forces, Ahriman (a Zoroastrian version of the devil) and his minions, the daeves, were said to roam the Earth on that night.
In ancient times it was not much of a festival or a joyous occasion. People spent the night together with friends and family to protect themselves against the evil forces.
On this night, they shared the last fruit of the year’s harvest. After surviving the longest night of the year, they spent the next day celebrating.
In modern times, the Shab-e Yalda has lost most of its religious signification and it has become a colorful and quite joyous festival.
How do Iranians celebrate Shab-e Yalda
For modern Iranians, Shab-e Yalda is a celebration that has much in common with New Year’s Eve. People organize parties with lots of food, especially fresh and dried fruit, sweets, nuts and almonds. Not much alcohol, as it is forbidden by their religion.
Some stick to the tradition that says that 40 types of food must be served at the Shab-e Yalda festival. And some of the foods have a special significance. For instance, eating watermelon ensures good health, while garlic will protect you from joint pains. Also, if you eat pomegranates, pears or carrots, you will be protected against insect bites over the hot summer months.
While food takes center stage at the party, people spend much of the night telling stories and jokes, singing and dancing or using Hafez’s poems for divination games.
People also prepare gifts for their friends and relatives, but it’s mostly symbolic gifts, like dried fruit wrapped in tulle, a symbol of their hopes for the next year’s harvest.