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Yalda (Persian: یلدا)), Shab-e Yaldâ (Persian: شب یلدا), "Yalda Night"), or Shab-e Chelleh (Persian: شب چلّه, Azerbaijani: چله گجه سی; lit. "Night of Forty") is the Persian Winter Solstice Celebration which has been popular since ancient times. Yalda is celebrated on the Northern Hemisphere's longest night of the year, that is, on the eve of the Winter Solstice. Depending on the shift of the calendar, Yalda is celebrated on or around December 20 or 21 each year.
Yalda has a history as long as the Mithraism religion. The Mithraists believed that this night is the night of the birth of Mithra, Persian angel of light and truth. At the morning of the longest night of the year the Mithra was born.
Following the fall of the Sassanid Empire and the subsequent rise of Islam in Persia/Iran, the religious significance of the event was lost, and like other Zoroastrian festivals, Yalda became a social occasion when family and close friends would get together. Nonetheless, the obligatory serving of fresh fruit during mid-winter is reminiscent of the ancient customs of invoking the divinities to request protection of the winter crop.
The 13th century Persian poet Sa'di wrote in his Bustan: "The true morning will not come, until the Yalda Night is gone".
Following the Persian calendar reform of 1925, which pegged some seasonal events to specific days of the calendar, Yalda came to be celebrated on the night before and including the first day of the tenth month (Dey). Subject to seasonal drift, this day may sometimes fall a day before or a day after the actual Winter Solstice.
Yalda Night has been officially added to Iran's List of National Treasures in a special ceremony in 2008.
Iranian Azeris call it Chilla Gejasi, which means the beginning of the first 40 days of winter.
In Zoroastrian and ancient Iranian traditions, the winter solstice with the longest night of the year was an auspicious day, and included customs intended to protect people from misfortune. On that day, people were advised to stay awake most of the night. To commemorate, people have small parties and gatherings and eat the last remaining fresh fruits from summer.
In modern days, although Yalda is not official holiday in Iran, families continue to hold traditional gatherings Iranian radio and television offer special programmes on Yalda.
The night of the greater Chelleh is called šab-e Chelleh or šab-e yaldā and is the occasion of special ceremonies. In most parts of Persia the extended family gather around and enjoy a fine dinner. Many varieties of fruits and sweetmeats especially prepared or kept for this night are served. In some areas it is believed that forty varieties of edibles should be served during the ceremony of the night of Chelleh. The most typical is watermelon especially kept from summer for this ceremony. It is believed that consuming watermelons on the night of Chelleh will ensure the health and well-being of the individual during the months of summer by protecting him from falling victim to excessive heat or disease produced by hot humors. After dinner the older individuals entertain the others by telling them tales and anecdotes . Another favorite and prevalent pastime of the night of Chelleh is divination by the Dīvān of Hafez (fāl-e Hafez). It is believed that one should not divine by the Dīvān of Hafez more than three times, however, or the poet may get angry ..
The night of Chelleh is a magically potent night. Its magic however, is primarily associated with eating. For instance, in Khorasan there is a belief that whoever eats carrots, pears, pomegranates, and green olives will be protected against the harmful bite of insects, especially scorpions. Eating garlic on this night protects one against pains in the joints. Placing one’s mouth near a donkey’s ear and whispering into its ear is certain to cure any ailment, while mixing camel fat and mare’s milk and burning them will protect from insects the place where the smoke from this concoction penetrates.
Foods common to Yalda celebration include watermelon, pomegranate, nuts, and dried fruit. These items and more are commonly placed on the korsi, a traditional piece of furniture similar to a very short table, covered by a wool or wool-filled blanket. People sit around the Korsi and put their legs under the blanket. Inside the korsi, heat is generated by means of coal, electricity or gas heaters. Activities common to celebration of Yalda include staying up past midnight, conversation, eating, reading poems out loud, telling stories and jokes, smoking "Ghelyoon" (water pipe), and for some dancing. Prior to invention and prevalence of electricity, decorating and lighting the house and yard with candles was also part of the tradition, but few have continued this tradition. Another faded tradition is giving the present of dried fruits and nuts to family and friends in small parchments tied with ribbon (similar to "favors" currently made for wedding and baby related parties in the United States). Prior to ban of alcohol, drinking wine was also part of the celebration. Despite the Islamic alcohol ban in Iran, many continue to include home-made and contraband alcoholic drinks in their celebrations.
Another common practice on the night of Chelleh involves young engaged men. These send a platter containing seven kinds of fruits and a variety of gifts to their fiancees on this night. In some areas the girl and her family return the favor by sending gifts back for the young man.
Many Iranian-Americans also celebrate Shab-e-Yalda in America. Some go to the extent of dressing up in "mahali" (traditional regional) cloths, and making makeshift Korsi to place the food on and gather around. Others do far less, only wishing each other a happy Yalda in phone calls or on social networks. Some facilities run for Iranian-American children teach about Shab-e-Yalda and some even have Yalda parties. Iranian-American television stations and American radio stations broadcasting in Persian also commemorate Shab-e-Yalda with special greetings and specials programing.
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The Eve of the Yalda has great significance in the Persian/Iranian calendar. Shab-e Yalda is a time of joy.
Yalda is traced back to Syriac ܝܠܕܐ, meaning birth. Mithra-worshipers used the term 'yalda' specifically with reference to the birth of Mithra. As the longest night of the year, the Eve of Yalda (Shab-e Yalda) is also a turning point, after which the days grow longer. In ancient times it symbolized the triumph of the Sun God over the powers of darkness .
The Cult of the Mithra was first introduced to Iran thousands of years ago by migrant Aryans . Mithra, the Sun God remained a potent symbol of worship throughout the following centuries. Centuries later, during the Achaemenid era, Mithra became a principal deity, equal in rank to Ahura Mazda (the god of all goodness) and Anahita (goddess of water and fertility) .
In Sasanian times, Zoroastrianism became Persia's official religion, but Mithra's importance remained undiminished. This is evident from the bas-reliefs as Naqsh-e Rustam and Tagh-e Bustan. At Naqsh-e Rustam, Anahita bestows the royal diadem upon Nasri, the Sasanian King. At the investiture of Ardeshir I, Ahura Mazda bestows this diadem to the new King. At Tagh-e Bustan too, Ahura Mazda is again conferring the royal diadem upon Ardeshir II. Mithra is always present as a witness to these ceremonies .
Over the centuries Mithraism spread to Greece and Ancient Rome via Asia Minor, gaining popularity within the ranks of the Roman army. In the 4th century AD as a result of errors made in calculating leap years and dates, the birthday of Mithra was transferred to 25 December .
It was said that Mithra was born out of the light that came from within the Alborz mountains . Ancient Iranians would gather in caves along the mountain range throughout the night to witness this miracle together at dawn. They were known as 'Yar-e Ghar' (Cave Mates). In Iran today, despite of the advent of Islam and Muslim rituals, Shab-e Yalda is still celebrated widely.
It is a time when friends and family gather together to eat, drink and read poetry (especially Hafez) until well after midnight. Fruits and nuts are eaten and pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant. The red color in these fruits symbolizes the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life, invoking the splendor of Mithra.
Because Shab-e Yalda is the longest and darkest night, it has come to symbolize many things in Persian poetry; separation from a loved one, loneliness and waiting. After Shab-e Yalda a transformation takes place - the waiting is over, light shines and goodness prevails.
' The sight of you each morning is a New Year Any night of your departure is the eve of Yalda' (Sa'di)
'With all my pains, there is still the hope of recovery Like the eve of Yalda, there will finally be an end' (Sa'di)
During the long night, Iranians also practice bibliomancy with the poetry of the highly respected mystic Iranian poet, Hafez. The poems of Divan-e-Hafez, which can be found in the bookcases of almost all Iranian families, are intermingled with peoples' life and are read or recited during various occasions like Nowruz and Yalda Night.