Yaldaa, the Iranian Christmas!

With many thanks to Dr. Nooriala for his contribution to Rozaneh


Esmail Nooriala


Yaldaa, the Iranian Christmas!


A lecture given at

Colorado Persian Society

On December 20, 2001.


First of all let me apologize for my harsh voice that is punctuating my words and sentences with a mixture of dry coughs and hard breaths. It is the same old Winter again, difficult and miserable, and I have been invaded by its invisible army of cold weather that comes, conquers your body and puts you under house arrest for some times. In these last two days I have been talking, or perhaps I should say „prayingš, to the Iranian Sun God, Mithra, who is supposed to defeat this invisible enemy and bring back the warmth and health of the better times. I, of course, have used cold medicine as well, just to be cautiously on the safe side. You never know which one will be more effective, prayer or medicine. So, it‚s always better to use a mixture of them.

The interesting point is that we, Iranians, did not use to think of a God called Mithra some two decades ago for such problems, if for anything else. Many of us had not even heard of his name. But, it is more that 20 years that Iranians all over the world are getting together in a night such as tonight and celebrate his mythical birth. Celebration aside, I would like to say a few words about this strange phenomenon of highly socio-cultural significance in the contemporary history of my country.

During the last 23 years, millions of Iranians have been driven out of their motherland due to political, social and economic hardships. And it has been during this long period of exile that we have begun a new search for our roots, not because we are now living as aliens in new habitats but because we have become emphatically stricken by an alien version of religion Islam in our own habitat. The coming to political power of a certain stratum of the Shiite Muslim clergy in Iran and its forceful imposition of what it sees as „Islamic rulesš on us has created a certain psychological upheaval in all of us, forcing us to remember a far-away past when Iran was an independent empire with its own home-brewed religion(s). We have been reminded that our great country was invaded, conquered and in many ways, raped by the newly-turned-Muslims of Arabian Peninsula some 1400 years ago. The Islamic Revolution seems a re-run of that catastrophe!

All through our history, we have oscillated between the heritage of a natural religion developed by our forefathers and the rule of some abstract religion that has come out of the necessities of our civil life that has delimited our freedom and has tainted our lives with unnatural conditions. The important thing to note is that if the abstract religion has changed, say from Zoroastrianism to Islam, the natural religion has been left the same each time appearing in a new disguise to suit our new needs. In every historical period the abstract religion has done its best to annihilate this natural religion and delete it from the communal memory of us Iranians and, at each high historical moment, that natural religion has reappeared out of many ordinary traditions, rituals, and festivities that punctuate our daily lives to revive our hope for a better future.

In fact, the history of Iran and Iranians during the last 1400 years could be read as the history of Iranian resistance towards the prevalence of Arabic culture and traditions. This history has had its periods of inactivity, as well as many periods of high active endeavors. There are many historical names we still give to our children that signify such historical struggles. For example, the two Persian names of Baabak and Afshin remind us of the bloody resistance movements that those great men did put up against the Arab domination of Iran. Our great poet, Ferdowsi, was able to preserve our Persian language single-handedly through his masterpiece, Shahnaame, merely by emphasizing on the non-Arabic cultural traits of our history and culture. Poets, thinkers and mystics like Haafez, Mowlanaa and Sa‚di were instrumental in giving new and humane interpretations to many brutal and uncivilized traditions that were imposed on a country with 3000 years of pre-Islamic history.

And their endeavors were based on their reference to a heritage that was given to them by their fathers and mothers under the check of a hostile political force that burnt the libraries, changed historical facts and fabricated whatever that was necessary to convert a nation to a culture completely alien to its upbringing.

And 23 years ago we came across one of these moments of high history. The brand of Islam that was advocated and implemented by the ruling clergy in what came to be known as the Islamic Revolution was not one of the home-brewed Iranian versions of Islam, but a brutal and bloody version that claimed to be the true Islam of the prophet Mohammad himself. One, of course, could embark on negating this claim by studying the Islamic history and showing the discrepancies that might be hidden in the former. And many of scholars have been doing so. But, on a national and popular scale, the result of our experience with the Islamic Revolution was the onset of a fresh search for finding something mysterious that could be named as „Iranianism.š

Our younger generation, though not directly involved in that Revolution, had to face this problematic too. They had to accept their Iranian identity in the eyes of the non-Iranian environment that encircled them and looked at them as Iranian. But, at the same time, they had to prove to the world that what was being presented as Iranian culture by the zealot Islamic government is not what really could be branded as Iranian. So, two generations, with two different agendas, were forced to search their common roots, hidden under the surface of a thick historical mishmash.

It was, and it has always been, this onset of research for the roots that opens our eyes to our ancient ways of seeing the world, our true original „religion.š But what am I saying? Another religion yet again? Aren‚t we escaping from the atrocities of a religious oligarchy just now? So, why should we find refuge in the arms of another one Ų a religion even older than the present one?

To me, the fact of the matter is that there are always two kinds of religions in all societies. We can call them „natural religionsš and „supernatural (or abstract) religionsš. The human societies have all begun with the natural one.

The natural religions are systems of interpreting the world around us and making its ever-repeating movements acceptable to our inquisitive brains, upon the limited knowledge and understanding we have in each historical period. In this process, the elements of nature are first „personified.š They come to be seen and begin to behave like human beings. And then, being much more powerful than the fragile man, they become regarded as super-persons that have their own independent agenda and affect the human‚s life in so many ways. We have to learn how to deal with these super powers that are ever present in our daily lives. We have to attract their love, affection and emotions. And for doing so, we have to have affectionate and emotional relationships with them. We have to live with them in peace. We should not be afraid of them. In fact, they are all providing us with all we need for our existence. In a way, we are mixed with them, we are parts of their world and it is upon our coexistence with them that the life can be preserved in peace and prosperity.

On the other hand, the abstract religions are the result of a much later stage of the development in the human societies and reflect the advent of the civil life in the cities with central governments and complicated legal requirements. The center of this new religious universe comes in the shape of a single omnipresent and omnipotent God who has created us and wants us to live according to his rules and laws. This God is an abstract one who is not tangible through our senses and daily experiences. He talks to us in installments and through his prophets, saints and, ultimately, the Church or the Mosque that claims to be the embodiment of the sacred heritage of the religion.

Living under the rules of an abstract Gods is hard and difficult. These rules are against human desire for freedom of action and expression. And, then, once a religious institution becomes able to attain the political power, a harsh drive towards uniformity and non-individuality begins. This is against the human nature too. It is based upon coercion and fear, threat and torture. And it ultimately forces its subject to find a way to curb its imposing might. This is always a high turning point of a history. This is that important historical moment when a nation begins to find a way out of its deadlock through searching for its new, but also very very old identity.

In the recent times, we experienced such a situation nearly 100 years ago Ų in a period that became known as the Constitutional Revolution. 100 years before that, Iranians were pushed by their religious leaders into a war with their neighboring power, Russia, and were shamefully defeated and crushed by the might of a modernized Russian army. They lost many vast areas of their country and found out that their God did not help them in their „holy warš (Jihaad) for defeating the Russian foes. This experience became the beginning of a search for a new national identity. Our intellectuals looked for something helpful amongst the scattered reminiscences of our pre-Islamic history and came up with a total package that could modernize Iran and give some kind of needed glory to it. Remember Malkam Khaan? Mirza Agha Khan e Kermani? Taghi-zaade? Saadegh Hedaayat? Ahmad Kasravi? Nimaa Yushij? Pour-Daavud? Go and read them and see what they are presenting in their writings.

The important thing is that, as you can see, here again, what had come to our aid was our pre-Islamic heritage. And what I want to show you tonight is the fact that we again are resorting to the same heritage to find our new answers for our new problems.

All through our history, we have oscillated between the heritage of a natural religion developed by our forefathers and the rule of some abstract religion that has come out of the necessities of our civil life that has delimited our freedom and has tainted our lives with unnatural conditions. The important thing to note is that if the abstract religion has changed, say from Zoroastrianism to Islam, the natural religion has been left the same each time appearing in a new disguise to suit our new needs. In every historical period the abstract religion has done its best to annihilate this natural religion and delete it from the communal memory of us Iranians and, at each high historical moment, that natural religion has reappeared out of many ordinary traditions, rituals, and festivities that punctuate our daily lives to revive our hope for a better future.

Think for a moment about the power that is hidden in an ordinary but highly popular festivity called „Chaar-shanbe Suri.š  This last Spring, it could make the religious rulers of Iran so furious that they had to put hundreds of its young participants in jail. It is a powerful celebration because it is a ritual and a common social action that is not related to any abstract and institutionalized religion with its rigid rules. There is no sacred act or thing in it. It is not an act of worshipping the fire. You make bundles of thistle and thorns, put fire to them, and jump over them with joy and enthusiasm. You become mixed with an element of nature, dance with its flames and absorb its kind warmth. You do not think of an abstract God who is sitting on a thrown somewhere in the Heaven and expects you to suppress your joy and behave yourself in his ever lasting and expanding presence.

So, it is this unifying power of our ancient natural religion that has helped us to preserve our identity and humanity all through this long history of wars, victories and defeats. Therefore, let us ponder on this unique source of cultural survival in some more details.

As far as the historical facts show, Iranians were a part of Arian tribes that used to live in the meadows of the Central Asia. Some 8,000 years ago, and due to some natural causes still exposed to scientific debate, they began to move out of their habitats and scatter in all directions. Some of them went to the lands that are now known as the Far East. Some went to Indian sub-continent, some to present Europe and some others, mostly from amongst tribes like Meds, Parts and Parsies (together known as „Iraniansš), came into the present Iranian plateau from both sides of the Caspian Sea, settling in the present Khoraasaan (East of Iran) and Faars/Paars (South of Iran) and Azarbayeijaan (West of Iran). This process of immigration took them more than 5 thousand years to a final settlement. The studies in the realm of ancient languages show that, even after thousands of years, the languages used by these variegated immigrant tribes have preserved a lot of common features. That is why we hear the linguists and archeologists talk about Indo-European languages, with the „Iranian languages branchš as a major offshoot of it.

These Arian tribes transported their natural religion with them too. And that is why, for example, we can see the same natural Gods in both Iranian and Indian mythologies. For the Arian tribes, there existed a pantheon of natural Gods, consisting of a God for every natural phenomenon. Amongst these natural gods, Mithra was considered to be the central figure. It represented the Sun, as the source of life and growth. In contrary to Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula who were exposed to the deadly heat of an ever-shining sun that inspired them to conceive their gods‚ hell as the land of fire and heat, Arian tribes were in love with the Sun. It is not an accidental fact that the word „Mehrš (a later pronunciation for Mithra), has a double meaning in the Persian language. It means „Sunš and „Loveš at the same time. Mithra is the protector of life, loving emotions, relationships and contracts and the structure of the whole universe. And, on the earth, he is represented by the element of fire. In fact, Arians were not the worshipers of fire but esteemed this element as a part of the Sun whose real embodiment was the gracious Mithra.

In this relation, it is interesting to ponder on the story of Mithra‚s birth. The universe was cold, dark and hardly squeezed in stone. And Mithra was born out of that germinal stone in the longest and darkest night of the year - the Solstice. The similarity of this myth with the story of discovery of fire narrated by Ferdowsi is also interesting. He says an Iranian mythological king made the first fire by pounding a piece of stone on a boulder. Here, too, the fire is born out of the bulky and hard body of the stone.

The selection of Solstice as the birth night of Mithra is also significant. The sun is born in the longest night of the year. From the next dawn, night is on retreat and days grow longer. Iranian called the first day of Winter as „Khorram ruzš that meant „The Happy Day.š Thus, they believed that in the depth of darkness, there was light and in the depth of stone there was fire. You can follow this symbolism of natural element all through the Iranian culture and literature: Hope is born when you are totally desperate; Justice comes at the height of despotic atrocities.

The festivities of Mithra‚s birth are all based on the requirements of an agricultural community with natural means of survival. Summer is gone, weather is cold and harsh, there is no job left to be done. It is the time of getting together during the long nights around the warmth of fire and talk about the better days that are coming our way. We can dance around the fire, sing songs, and eat agricultural products like nuts, raisin and the last season's fruits. And go to bed with the confidence that Sun, the great Mithra, is in his way to come and prevail the next day.

Mithraism, as a natural religion, was not an institutionalized faith. It was scattered and individualized. It was based on the unity of man and universe and the ability of the former to rediscover this unity through his love for Mithra. Mithra is the mother of all the eastern mystical faiths and Buddhism, Manism, as well as the true Persian Erfaan are some of its many interpretations.

But what makes it so relevant to our lives here in the West is the fact that Christianity, as we know it, is also a mixture of a primitive form of Christian faith and a highly developed version of Mithraism in the fourth century of the Christian calendar. This amalgamation happened in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire.

Mithraism had never become the state religion of the Persian Empire. For more than a thousand years, Iranian kings and courts refused to accept and adopt a certain state religion. Religion was considered as a personal and community-related matter and did not have anything to do with the government. This, of course, does not mean that the king and his administrators did not have their own religious faiths. But we see the ancient kings praying to different Gods worshiped by their peoples and the freedom of religion was the key to success in their empire building. Even the advent of the abstract religion of Zoroastra (Zartosht)  in the Iranian plateau did not put an end to the prevalence of Mithraism amongst Iranians. It was only after the adaptation of Christianity by the Roman Empire that the Sassanid kings of Iran decided to unify their people under the banner of a state religion through implementation of many brutal policies that ultimately worked to their demise in the hands of the Muslim-Arab invaders.

In the meanwhile, the Iranian and the Roman Empires were engaged in a more-than-300 years of war that, inevitably, did bring them together and worked also as a cultural liaison between the two fighting nations. Mithraism crept into the Roman Empire in many ways but mostly by the Iranian soldiers that were captured in the battlefields. It soon attracted the attention of the army leaders.  Soon worshiping Mithra and being a Roman soldier became one. Here, Mithraism was institutionalized and gained fixed rituals and ceremonies and that is why we should not take what we read about the roman Mithraism as what this faith was in Iran.

At the same time, and outside the roman army barracks, a new religion was spreading amongst the mobs too. It was the worship of the son of the Jewish God whose name was to be known as Jesus Christ. The idea was rejected by the Jewish authorities but was welcomed by the suppressed people. Within three centuries it became so prevalent that the Roman Emperors were forced to accept Christianity as the state religion of Rome.

Nevertheless, this state religion was to be different from what people had accepted in their hearts. It was to be a mixture of army Mithraism and popular Christian faith with some other added ingredients from Greek mythology and even Egyptian history. There ensued an interesting process of unification in which Mithra and Christ became one. Mithra‚s birth night became the birthday of Christ and many of the Mithraic rituals were adapted as the Christian ones.

I do not intend to go into details of this unification. The important thing I want to emphasis on is the fact that we have embarked on a search for our true identity and have come up with a lot of information that takes our origins out of the Arabic/Muslim culture and puts it at and as the source of that culture and civilization that was developed by Christian Europeans and Americans. We have discovered that our roots are the same, our languages belong to the same family and, now, our religious rituals, as far as they adhere to their natural frameworks and perspectives, come from the same source.

It is both surprising and rejoicing to look at the Christmas tree and its decoration and remind ourselves that this is the same evergreen or Cypress tree (Sarv) that our ancestors used to decorate in their cottages for the birth night of Mithra.

This universality of our New Year festivities opens the door to a more humanistic and naturalistic perspective of mind for us all. Every Sunday (that is the day of the Sun God!), we should remember that it is really Mithra, the Arian and Iranian God of Sun and love, who is also being worshipped in every Christian church. Every Christmas, we should remind ourselves that it is Yaldaa again. Yaldaa means „birthš and in every Yaldaa we celebrate both the rebirth of the Sun and the birth of a man who is supposed to have come for the salvation of human kind. This is the magic of cultural genetics at work. We are all from the same origin and same sequence of genes. We are a configuration of natural elements. A mixture of wind, earth, water and fire. And between two brackets of „ashesš, it is the fire that symbolizes our life and well-being. Fire makes us and swallows us, we make fire and coexist with it. We are the created the and creator. As Mithra is.

And let me finish my words with a line of poetry by our great poet, Hafez, who, I believe, was a Mithraic thinker and artist. By the magic of his poetics, he reverses the cause-effect relationship between the Sun and the life of the human kind and writes:


Out of the hidden fire in my chest

Sun is just a flame

Keeping the sky ablaze.


Thank you for your patience,

May Sun enlighten all your days

Happy New Year

And Merry Yaldaa to all of you.