The Iranian Ylada
By Ash Farhang
A chance meeting some years ago with an Iranian scholar who, as fate has it, now lives in Helsinki, Finland, introduced me to an aspect of Iranian history, which to this date is nothing short of a love affair with my ancestors. Though long forgotten, they deserve to be remembered for what they truly were. For this enlightenment, I am forever indebted to this friend.
At this particular time of year, I would like to share something with you that I think speaks volumes of plagiarisms and outright thefts of many Iranian thoughts and customs. I feel sure that many of you are aware of this, but circumstances have made it difficult to assert the facts or to remind your colleagues and compatriots of them.
When my children were growing up and were still at home, as parents, Christmas was a difficult time for us. Like all other Iranian children, ours could not quite understand the lack of enthusiasm during this particular holiday.
I am inclined to think that this, among many others, may have been the main contributing factor for their feeling that their parents were "different". They wished we would make the same efforts at Christmas as other parents, but because our hearts were not in it, everything we did seemed either artificial or pretentious, which made us in their eyes even more "different".
However, the chance meeting changed all that with the result that a small amount of research produced many sweet historical facts. Had I known this when my children were small, I would have happily, gladly, and most proudly celebrated this particular holiday season as one of our very own. And I would not have had all those uncomfortable feelings at Christmas with or without a tree.
Yalda (winter solstice) is an ancient Iranian word and appears in many of Prophet Mani's writings. The word refers to a new Beginning from which the Arabic words milaad, tavalod etc. were derived. Mitra (or Mithra) the early Iranian Prophet, considering Light as the essence of existence and life, believed in its sanctity. The Sun as its most obvious manifestation was revered and some out of pure ignorance concluded that Mitra worshiped the Sun.
Whether she did or not she was believed to have been born by divine gesture on December 21st, the longest night of the year, specifically to begin the struggle and triumph of "Light" over "Dark" by having longer and longer days following the longest night of the year.
Mitra's birthday was celebrated for a total of 10 days up to and including the First of January. It is not an accident that half way through the celebrations, namely December 25th, was chosen as Jesus' birthday and January 1st as the first day of New Year.
Remember that Romans, prior to Christianity, practiced Mitraism and only out of political considerations, in the year 376, they converted to the new religion that had started within their own territory. They were not too happy about their main philosophy and religion having been imported from their main and only competitor, namely, the Persian Empire, they converted expeditiously.
According to one source, the Iranians celebrated this day as early as 2,000 BC. Zoroastrians after refining and discarding some of the mythical and "heretical" aspects of Mithraism, retained Yalda (The Birth), and additionally encouraged celebrations of Noruz and Mehregan among many others.
Ancient Iranians celebrated Yalda by decorating an evergreen tree, the Sarve. The Sarve, Rocket Juniper (what a name!), also known as the cypress tree, being straight, upright, resilient and resistant to the cold weather (all signs of strength and upright of character) was thought appropriate to represent Mitra, the omnipotent and ubiquitous deity.
The younger girls had their "wishes" symbolically wrapped in colorful silk cloth and hung them on the tree as offerings to Mitra with an expectation, no doubt, that their prayers would be rewarded (remnants of this traditions can still be seen in Iran at remote villages where some young girls tie colorful bundles to trees to answer to their "wishes") . Thus the tradition of decorations of the tree with lights and gifts on or beside the tree was born.
As you may know, Pope Leo, in the fourth century (A.D.376), after almost destroying the last temple of Mitra (Mitraeum) in his campaign against Mitraism and in the good old Christian tradition, "If you can't claim it, imitate it and call it your own," proclaimed the 25th of December as Christ's birthday and January 1st (not March 21st as was the norm) as the first day of New Year.
Again in the same Euro-Christian tradition of not identifying the source, Luther, the famous German reformer, in the 18th century (1756, I believe), having learned of the Yalda Tree tradition, introduced the Christmas tree to the Germans. However, as Sarves were not much known in Germany, nor indeed in much of Europe, the chosen tree became a genus of pine, abundant in Europe.
So now with or without the children at home, we decorate a small Sarve with a star (Mitra's) on top and many presents all around, not necessarily for Mitra, but in memory of my ancestors for my children and grandchildren.
Please, therefore, decorate a tree at this joyous time, call it by its true name -- Yalda Tree -- and celebrate it as your own and don't feel ambivalent when your children wonder if we celebrate the occasion. So Happy Yalda and the greetings of the season to all of you; no matter what your religion.