While for many tourist December is a month of Christmas and New Year celebrations, Iranians are preparing their-selves for a different kind of festival. It was December 2017 when I wondered the streets of Shiraz, looking for some Christmas vibes. Fully aware of my presence in an Islamic country, yet assuming there should be some kind of Christmas celebrations going on. But on the streets, I saw no signs of this event whatsoever. No Christmas trees, no Christmas balls, Santa-Claus, nor any western Christmas song towards the third week of December. Curious to learn more about this, I turned to my host to ask him about this tradition; ‘You can find Christmas celebrations in some parts of Iran. Mainly amongst the Armenian community,’ he replied ‘But countrywide the people are preparing for another celebration; Yalda night.
Shabe Yalda, which translates to Yalda Night in English, is the traditional celebration of the victory of light over darkness. And falls on the winter solstice, between the 20-21st of December. At the longest and darkest night of the year. Also referred to as Shab-e Chelleh, it marks the transition from autumn to winter. And is the start of the first forty days of winter according to the Iranian calendar.
Dating from the time of the Zoroastrians, Yalda is one of Iran’s oldest celebrations. Starting directly after sunset, when the long, dark night comes in. Families used to gather to protect themselves from the evil forces that thrive on this night. Staying awake to avoid any misfortune caused by dark demons. And eat remaining summer fruits in the safe company of friends and family. The festival lasts until the sun rises the next morning. The sun symbolizing the birth of Mithra; the god of light. As Yalda ends, the light wins over darkness. And the days will be longer while the night will be shorter.
Although the fears of evil and darkness are mostly gone, Iranians still like to practice the old traditions that come with it Yalda. Gathering with family, usually in an elders home or private garden. Staying up all night, eating delicious food, fruits, nuts, and sweets. Telling stories, expressing gratitude, praying for blessings and reading poetry until long after midnight. And enjoying valuable time together.
My host in Shiraz invited me to his family’s Yalda celebration. Where I was welcomed with an abundance of red-colored, sun-shaped fruits such as pomegranate and watermelon. As well as tea with creamy pastries and a large bowl full nuts; pistachios, almonds, dried apricot and walnuts. But also figs, dried berries, raisins, and seeds were displayed on the Persian carpet. Later I learned that the red color of the fruits symbolizes the crimson shades of dawn as well as the glow of life in relation to Mithra.
After chatting with family, eating and snacking on all these wealthy and delicious foods, I felt already spoiled. But then all of a sudden I got invited to another part of the home, where some aunts had been preparing delicious havij polo; Iranian carrot rice with saffron, fried lemon chicken and vegetable salad. What a treat and delicious surprise!
During Yalda, different regions traditionally serve different meals. Fesenjan, an irresistible dish with chicken in a flavourful walnut and pomegranate sauce can be generally served. But havij polo turned out to be Shiraz specific. Other region-specific dishes during Yalda are sabzi polo (white rice mixed with a variety of chopped herbs, usually served with fresh fish) in Gilan and Anar Polo (a colorful dish with rice and pomegranate)
Back in the other room, it was now time for more chatting, story-telling and as the night continued; Hafez poetry. Besides reading poetry about long, lonely nights and enjoying Hafez poetry in general –Iranians love their poetry!- there’s also a newer tradition of asking life questions or wishes and have the poetry answer them. For example; you make a wish, the reader opens the book randomly and the poem on your page interpreters your answer. A fun way to read poetry from new perspectives.
As the night carried on my host and I left the celebration, but the kind family continued; Drinking tea and arak, sharing stories, reading poetry and telling stories. Even smoking galyan (hookah), clapping and singing songs. The vibe was super cozy, loving, festive and generous. A wonderful experience.
Although some hotels and hostels organize Yalda gatherings, I think the best place to experience Yalda is to celebrate it with Iranian friends. And while it might sound a bit uncomfortable to join a family meeting, the Iranians tend to be such kind and welcoming people, they’ll immediately make you feel at home! I honestly was welcomed as if I was part of the family for a long time. Talking to the American aunty, who in turn translated questions from others in the family. Sharing our cultures and interests over food and poetry. What a wonderful night and an excellent way to learn about another tradition.
Don’t have Iranian friends?! Don’t worry! As making Iranian friends generally is not hard at all! A simple stroll down the bazaar, a visit to a hip café or making friends on Couchsurfing can get you a long way! Be sure to bring some pomegranate or nuts if you’re going 🙂
I certainly hope to enjoy the Yalda celebrations again in Iran. But until that time ‘Shabe Yalda Mobarak’ wishing everybody a happy Yalda!
Did you celebrate Yalda in Iran? 🙂 Please share your experiences through the comment box below.