Significance of winter solstice in Persian culture
By Massoume Price
December 8, 1999
Yalda, a Syric word imported into the Persian language by Syric Christians
means birth (tavalod and meelaad are from the same origin). It is a relatively
recent arrival and refereed to the "Shab e Cheleh" festival,
a celebration of Winter solstice on December 21st. Yalda, forty days before
the next major Persian festival "Jashn e Sadeh", has been celebrated
in countless cultures for thousands of years. The ancient Roman festivals
of Saturnalia (God of Agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (Sun God) are
amongst the best known in the Western world.
In most ancient cultures, including Persia, the start of the solar year
has been marked to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and the
renewal of the Sun. For instance, four thousand years ago the Egyptians
celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of the year. They set the
length of the festival at 12 days, to reflect the 12 divisions in their
sun calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots
as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth
a shoot each month.
The Persians adopted their annual renewal festival from the Babylonians
and incorporated it into the rituals of their own Zoroastrian religion.
The last day of the Persian month of "Azar" is the longest night
of the year, when the forces of Ahriman are assumed to be at their peak.
While the next day, the first day of the month of "Day" known
as "Khoram rooz" or "Khore rooz" (the day of the sun)
belongs to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. Since the days are getting
longer and the nights shorter, this day marks the victory of the sun over
darkness. The occasion was celebrated in the festival of "Daygan"
dedicated to Ahura Mazda, on the first day of the month of "Day".
Fires would be burnt all night to ensure the defeat of the forces of
Ahriman. There would be feasts, acts of charity and a number of deities
honored and prayers performed to ensure the total victory of the sun that
was essential for the protection of winter crops. There would be prayers
to Mithra (Mehr) and feasts in his honor, since Mithra is the Eyzad responsible
for protecting "the light of the early morning", known as "Havangah".
It was also assumed that Ahura Mazda would grant people's wishes.
One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order.
Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in white would change
place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled
into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed.
This tradition persisted until the Sassanid period, and is mentioned by
Biruni and others in their recordings of pre-Islamic rituals and festivals.
Its origin goes back to the Babylonian new year celebration. These people
believed the first creation was order that came out of chaos. To appreciate
and celebrate the first creation they had a festival and all roles were
reversed. Disorder and chaos ruled for a day and eventually order was restored
and succeeded at the end of the festival.
The Egyptian and Persian traditions merged in ancient Rome, in a festival
dedicated to the ancient god of seedtime, Saturn. The Romans exchanged
gifts, partied and decorated their homes with greenery. Following the Persian
tradition, the usual order of the year was suspended. Grudges and quarrels
would be forgotten and wars interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts
and schools were closed. Rich and poor became equal, masters served slaves,
and children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, merriment
of all kinds prevailed. A mock king, the Lord of Misrule, was crowned.
Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.
Another related Roman festival celebrated at the same time was dedicated
to Sol Invictus ("the invincible sun"). Originally a Syrian deity,
this cult was imported by Emperor Heliogabalus into Rome and Sol was made
god of the state. With the spread of Christianity, Christmas celebration
became the most important Christian festival. In the third century various
dates, from December to April, were celebrated by Christians as Christmas.
January 6 was the most favored day because it was thought to be Jesus's
Baptismal day (in the Greek Orthodox Church this continues to be the day
to celebrate Christmas). In year 350, December 25 was adopted in Rome and
gradually almost the entire Christian church agreed to that date, which
coincided, with the Winter solstice and the festivals, Sol Invicta and
Saturnalia. Many of the rituals and traditions of the pagan festivals were
incorporated into the Christmas celebration and are still observed today.
It is not clear when and how the world "Yalda" entered the
Persian language. The massive persecution of early Christians in Rome brought
many Christian refugees into the Sassanid Empire and it is very likely
that these Christians introduced and popularized "Yalda" in Iran.
Gradually "Shab e Yalda" and "Shab e Cheleh" became
synonymous and the two are used interchangeably. With the conquest of Islam
the religious significance of the ancient Persian festivals was lost. Today
"Shab e Cheleh" is merely a social occasion, when family and
friends get together for fun and merriment. Different kinds of dried fruits,
nuts, seeds and fresh winter fruits are consumed. The presence of dried
and fresh fruits is reminiscence of the ancient feasts to celebrate and
pray to the deities to ensure the protection of the winter crops.
Iranian Jews, who are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country,
in addition to "Shab e Cheleh", also celebrate the festival of
"Illanout" (tree festival) at around the same time. Illanout
is very similar to the Shab e Cheleh celebration. Candles are lit and all
varieties of dried and fresh winter fruits are served. Special meals are
prepared and prayers are performed. There are also very similar festivals
in many parts of Southern Russia that are identical to "Shab e Cheleh"
with local variations. Sweet breads are baked in the shape of humans and
animals. Bon fires are made and dances resemble crop harvesting. Comparison
and detailed studies of all these celebrations no doubt will shed more
light on the forgotten aspects of this wonderful and ancient festival,
where merriment was the main theme of the festival. Happy Shab e Cheleh.