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Iranians celebrate Zoroastrian feast during Moslem holy month

TEHRAN, Dec 21 (AFP) - Iranians celebrated Monday night the feast of Yalda, a religious tradition older than Islam, even though this year it fell during the Moslem fasting month of Ramadan.

While Ramadan is marked by abstinence from eating, drinking and smoking, Yalda, which celebrates the longest night in the year, is an occasion for gorging oneself on various snacks and fruits.

Yalda dates back several thousand years to when Zoroastrianism, a dualist faith concerned with the battle between good and evil, was the official religion of ancient Persia.

It is characterized by family reunions and feasting with grandparents and friends, the telling of stories and the reading of poetry to the younger generations.

It is also virtually obligatory to eat summer fruits like water melon and local sweet melons, along with dried fruits and nuts, in the belief that they will keep illness at bay until the spring.

Yalda also marks the end of autumn and start of winter, which ancient Persians saw as a time when nature sinks into slumber until the spring equinox in March.

The tradition, like many other Zoroastrian customs, has survived all political upheavals in former Persia, notably the arrival of Islam in the seventh century.

In a sign of how dear Iranians hold their ancient tradition, the restrictions imposed on food consumption by Ramadan did little to ease the zest for celebrating Yalda.

"Iranians gather tonight to celebrate Yalda, this national custom and also to observe Ramadan, our other religious custom," said the evening daily Etelaat on Monday.

As in previous years, shops displayed new stocks of nuts and dried fruit amid a frenzy of activity in the streets.

Large quantities of melons were retrieved from industrial refrigerators, where they had been preserved for the feast, and offered on the market.

Yalda is believed by some to be marked by evil spirits and families get together to escape solitude and dispel bad omens.

Ancient Zoroastrians, for whom day and night symbolize good and evil, saw Yalda as a time when the battle between the two forces reached its peak.

The end of the night and the dawn represents the final victory of the good, embodied in the Zoroastrian god Ahur Mazda, over the devil Ahriman.

Around 50,000 of Iran's 60 million population are Zoroastrians.

They believe their prophet Zarathustra was born at Takht-e-Soleyman, in Iranian Azerbaijan, in 1737 BC, and was buried at Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

The sect was predominant in almost all of ancient Persia before the Islamic conquest in the seventh century.

Iran's Islamic authorities recognize the Zoroastrian religion and the community has the right of worship and religious education. It also has its own MP in parliament.

Forwarded by Payman Arabshahi

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