Eve of Yalda or Chelleh

Nazli Irani Monahan

December 21, 2003

Iran’s unique geographic and historic position within the 5 continents has made it an ideal territory for the convergence of various cultures and civilizations.  Located in the heart of the Middle East and on the Ancient Silk Road, it is where the cultures of China and India met the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures.

It is also where different faiths and religions have existed; from Mithraism and Zoroastrianism to Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.   

From this mixture, the great Aryan civilization was formed.  Perhaps it was due to this enrichment that Bertrand Russell, the great modern historian and philosopher, considered the ancient Aryan culture the greatest and the richest among all cultures with many colorful customs and ceremonies.

Since ancient Persians were mostly farmers and shepherds, they celebrated changes of nature that affected their daily lives.  Among these ceremonies, 4 major festivities that are still observed are directly related to changes in nature.  Daylight, sunshine and moderate weather were considered the Good forces; while night, darkness and cold weather were believed to be the Evil forces.  They observed that days and nights change length throughout the year.  Sometimes days are longer, other times nights are longer.  They believed that light and dark and good and evil are in constant battle and they celebrated the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.

The 4 festivities still observed today are:

1)          No-Rooz (meaning “new day” which is the Persian New Year and starts on March 21st, the first day of spring.  In fact Persian New Year begins from the very moment of the spring equinox whatever time of the day or night that may be.  It is the most important festivity observed by all Iranians regardless of their religious belief and is the celebration of the arrival of spring and the revival of nature, which promises happiness and prosperity.  No-Rooz celebrations start a few days before the arrival of the New Year and last until the 13th day of the New Year.  On the eve of the last Wednesday of the old year people jump over fire hoping its light and warmth will rid them of all old illnesses and bring a healthy glow to their cheeks.  The festivities are completed on the 13th day of the New Year when everyone goes to nature and picnics outdoors to get rid of the bad omen of the 13th day of the year.

2)                 The next festivity is called Jashn-e Mehregan, celebrated on October 2 which coincides with the 10th day of the Persian month of Mehr; thus the name Mehregan.  It is the celebration of the end of the harvest season and a call on the good forces of light and warmth to overcome the upcoming months of winter and darkness and cold.

3)                 The third major festivity is the Eve of Yalda, which is what we are celebrating today.  Yalda, also called Chelleh, is the longest night of the year (about 14 hours) and is on the eve of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.  From the next day, days begin to get longer and light will gradually triumph over darkness.  Celebration of Yalda is over 3000 years old.  It dates back to the pre-Zoroastrian time of Mithraism or worship of the Sun God or Mithra.  The Sun God overcomes the darkness from the first day of winter and thus is reborn.  In fact the word Yalda has a Syrianic root which means “birth.”  Zoroastrians also called this night “Varjavand” or divine glory. 

4)                 The fourth festivity called Jashn-e Sadeh, takes place on January 30th , which coincides with 10th day of  the Persian month of Bahman.  Sadeh comes from the Persian word “sad” which means 100.  Jan 30th is exactly 50 days before Persian New Year on March 21.  That means there are 50 days and 50 nights left before winter ends and the old year turns into a fresh new year.

Yalda was one of the most important festivity for ancient Persians.  It was celebrated at nighttime and was a happy occasion.  Relatives gathered at the house of the elder of the family and celebrated with dancing, merry making, and showing their love for one another.  They typically ate fruits, especially watermelon, melon and pomegranate.  Also nuts and roasted watermelon seeds were served. 

My mother always tells us her childhood memories of the Eve of Yalda ceremony.  The family gathered around what was called a “Korsi”.  Korsi was how they kept warm in winter before the time of oil, gas, and electric heating. Korsi was a large square shaped wooden table with short legs, like a coffee table with layers of blankets and quilts and sheets spread on them and a heating element, usually a brazier of burning charcoal, put under the Korsi for warmth.  People sat around the Korsi and kept their legs warm under the covers. On top of the Korsi they put all the food including sweets, nuts and fruits.  They read poetry, said stories, and played games.

It is not certain when the word “Yalda” has entered the Persian language.  Its roots being from Syriac language meaning “birth” has created different theories about the origin of  the word.  One interesting theory is that Mithraism flourished in the late Roman Empire and the birth of Sun God or Mithra was celebrated in splendor by the Romans.  Later on when Christianity took over, the birth of Jesus Christ and the birth of the Sun God were combined and celebrated as Christmas.  At some point the world Yalda may have been introduced to Persian language by the Christians who came to Persia.

No matter how we celebrate and in what language, the important fact is that at this time of the year, we are all celebrating the birth of light and warmth that shall bring more peace and prosperity to our lives.

Happy Yalda, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all.