It has been nearly a few thousand years since the last night of autumn, the Yalda Night, the darkest and longest night of the year has been celebrated by Iranians with a variety of rituals and customs in different regions of Iran.
Yalda Night is the longest night of the year between the sunset on December 21st , the last day of autumn until sunrise on December 22nd (dates may vary), the first day of winter, coinciding with the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, so after this night, the nights get shorter and the day time lengthens.
One of the most important celebrations of ancient Iranians was the Yalda Night, which has long been so important for many years. To this day, it has found a very special place among Iranians. The Iranian customs of Yalda Night are different than any other country today.
Yalda is derived from a Syriac word meaning birth and renaissance. The great scientist and calendar scholar Abu-Reyhan Biruni refers to the night of Yalda by the name of "Milad Akbar", regarded as the birth of sun.
According to ancient Iranians (Zoroastrian and Mithraic ) this night - the longest night of the year is the birth day of deity "Mehr" or Mithra, and after this night the days lengthen again until vernal equinox (spring equinox) when days and nights become equal in length again.
And we also know that this belief was widespread among the Romans and they called it the "Invincible Sun" (Roman: Solus Invictus ) After the Roman conversion to Christianity in the 4th century AD, the Mithra Birth-night was considered as the night of Jesus' birth, but the exact date of Jesus' birth is not known and some still believe that it was in summer.
Christians celebrated December 21st for several centuries as the day of the birth of Jesus until after conversion of Julian calendar into the Gregorian calendar in 15th century, the day of Jesus' birth was marked on December 25th.
It is not clear exactly how and when the word Yalda came into Persian. It has come from history that the early Christians living in Roman territory were in great difficulty and some of them decided to migrate to Persia. Because of the proximity of cultures, this Syriac word finds its way into Persian.
Yalda, The last night of autumn, which is the longest and darkest night of the year, has gained a special place among Iranians who enjoy spending this long night together with family with all sorts of fun programs until dawn; to prevent the darkness and coldness caused by absence of the sun weaken their souls.
According to ancient traditions, on the first day of month "Day", Persian kings left the royal throne and started a spiritual trip in the deserts, while the guards, slaves and servants of the royal palace were temporarily free and could live like others. Vessels, chiefs, the king and the common people would look the same in one place. However, this has not been proved and it may be not more than just a myth.
Yalda is now celebrated by Iranians in a form of overnight family gathering. Watermelons, nuts, pomegranates and sweets are usually served and are symbolic aspects of this event. Most of these fruits that have many seeds are considered to be symbols of fertility. Watermelon and pomegranate represent sunrise because of their red color.
The main fruit served in occasion of Yalda gatherings is Pomegranate because it was considered a symbol of fertility due to its numerous seeds; also the red color symbolizes the sun and happiness. By eating pomegranates and resorting to it they would increase their fertility and blessing.
Pomegranate fruit has always been considered so important and even holds a special sacred place among the world's well-known religions, as it is also mentioned in legends and myths. It is interesting to know that in the Zoroastrian religion it is a sacred fruit and tree branches and seeds are used in rituals.
Watermelon, like pomegranate, is one of the most special fruits eaten in occasion of Yalda night. It is actually a summer fruit and signifies the summer heat and sun.
Of course, other fruits such as oranges, apples, persimmon, pears or even pumpkin can be used in occasion of Yalda.
Special nuts and snacks, including pistachios, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and dried berries and figs, are one of the most important options for Yalda gatherings. In the past, it was not easy to keep some fruits and nuts fresh for winter consumption, so Iranian people used to dry them as a type of preservation.
Fesenjan Stew | Pomogranete and walnut stew with chicken
You know you are a special guest when your host serves you Fesenjan. It’s a real treat, as it takes longer than most dishes to prepare. This medieval stew is originally from Caspian region of Iran. Traditionally, it is made with duck, chicken or with meatballs. Now it’s more commonly made with chicken and is considered one of the main dishes served in occasion of Yalda.The pomegranate, a winter fruit, adds acidity to balance and bring all the flavors together.
Fesenjan Stew, Iranian Cuisine
Yalda in different cultures
Yalda, the Christmas Eve or the Winter Revolution; the last day of autumn, whatever you name it, is a traditional celebration of all the people to keep alive the longest night of the year.
East Asia | Dongzhi celebration
East Asian people celebrate their winter revolution with a Dongzhi celebration. A ritual that is considered one of the most important rituals among the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and people of the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, starting at the end of the autumn evening. Families gather on this day and eat food called Tang Yuan and Rice Dumplings, foods that symbolize family solidarity in East Asian cultures.
Korea | Dispel the Evil
In Korea, a traditional food made with rice and red beans. They spray a special liquid around their home on this day to dispel the evil spirits and evil forces around them. What may have been the origin of the ancient Chinese myth that on the last day of autumn a hunter's soul travels to the villagers' house to find prey for the cool season.
The Japanese also take citrus baths on this day to not only dispel the negative forces, but also to protect against the common cold in the winter. In the past, citrus baths were meant to be immersed in a bath tub full of citrus, but nowadays, if they were to do so, they would bathe in a bathtub with a few floating lemons and oranges.
The people of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador have in common the longest night of the year: Inti Raymi is an ancient Inca religious celebration during which Incas worshiped the God Inti or Sun. Formerly the Inti Raymi lasted about 15 days of rituals, sacrifices and dances to worship the sun god. They go to the heights point of the region and pretend to have the sun tied to the rocks in order to prolong the daytime. The last Inti Raymi held with the presence of Inca Empire Inca took place in 1535, a year before the Spanish conquest. Currently, the Inti Raymi is a theatrical performance.
Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru
But the most exciting event may be the festival held in the West Africa. At this festival, people come out into the streets in weird costumes like bull heads, horses, devils and angels, and play their ritual music to welcome the winter.