decorate a small Sarve not necessarily for Mitra,
but in memory of my ancestors
By Ash Farhang
December 23, 2003
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
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
writings. The word refers to a new Beginning from
milaad, tavalod etc.
were derived. Mitra (or Mithra) the early Iranian
Prophet, considering Light as the essence of existence
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
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.
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
According to one source, the Iranians celebrated
this day as early as 2,000 BC. Zoroastrians after
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
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
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.
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
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
presents all around, not necessarily for Mitra,
but in memory of my ancestors for my children and grandchildren.
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.
This article is a revision of the earlier "Merry
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