Shab-e Yalda: The Zoroastrian Winter Solstice
We are delighted to be able to share two articles about the festival of Yalda which is celebrated by Zoroastrians on 21st December.
The second article, contributed by Pablo Vazquez, discusses how celebration of the festival has evolved over time.
We thank both contributors for these articles which we hope you will find informative and useful.
Shab-e Yalda: The Zoroastrian Winter Solstice
What is Shab-e Yalda?
Shab-e Yalda (also known as Shab-e Chelleh), meaning Yalda Night, usually occurs around December 20th or 21st on the Gregorian calendar depending on the alignment of both the Solar Hijri calendar used officially in Iran and the Fasli calendar used by many Iranian Zoroastrians. This alignment occurs whenever the exact Winter Solstice is calculated in Iran as is traditional and sometimes the last night of the month of Adar aligns with these but it is not always the case. Very little is known about the origins of Shab-e Yalda but we do know that it is a Zoroastrian festival that has developed over time and accrued different meanings. The most agreed-upon description of Shab-e Yalda is that it is a sacred night where the darkness of the longest night and previous times are fought against, the darkness representing Angra Mainyu/Ahriman, with laughter, comradery, celebration, joy, feasting, family, storytelling, and love. It is treated as an all-night endeavor and celebrated in different ways by different Zoroastrian communities. As with most Zoroastrian festivals, it also includes commemorations of other stories important to the Zoroastrian tradition and, sadly, some misconceptions.
How Was It Celebrated In the Past?
Shab-e Yalda has mysterious origins but we do know why Zoroastrians did eventually celebrate it. The holiday relates historically to Rapithwin, the Yazata of Summer and Noon, who was said to descend at this moment to rest until Farvardin and, as such, the Yalda Night is a celebration of welcome and thanks of Rapithwin for the heat of warmer seasons and the light of the midday sun. In fact, Yalda is not even the original name for the day but rather Chelle as the term Yalda itself is Syriac and was used by the Christians first to refer to Christmas. The original Zoroastrian term is Chelleh, meaning 40, relating to the ancient divisions of the Zoroastrian calendar into 40 days. It is also believed academically that the reason there are no large religious rituals associated with Yalda and only household rituals is because it was viewed that no one should leave the house during the longest night lest they fall prey to the predations of the Daeva, the servants of Angra Mainyu/Ahriman. Hence, each household in its festivities with its fire acted as a citadel of Asha against the Daeva, a ward for the whole community, a protective divine “force-field” of sorts.
Of note, Yalda/Chelleh was Sada/Sadeh for most of Zoroastrian history with the difference in days of celebration having developed because of different interpretations of the date it was supposed to take place. Some places (like Kerman in Iran) maintained the conflation and still celebrate Yalda as Sadeh but the vast majority have split the celebration into two parts as it was likely done in ancient times because one celebrated Rapithwin’s descent (Yalda) and the other his ascension (Sadeh). Earliest records list Sadeh as the longest and coldest night and that it happened in what would be considered mid-December for those of us using the Gregorian calendar, so that would indeed be the same as Yalda which happens on the Winter Solstice, the longest and darkest night of the year. What is most likely is that Sadeh was a 40 day festival (for spiritually protective reasons due to the harshness of Winter) that had a beginning and a culmination which would fit pre-modern festival traditions worldwide. We still see this with some Zoroastrians festivals lasting 5-10 days and outside of the faith with Carnivale lasting 30 days or Christmas 12 days for Christians. Also, we have to remember that Yalda and Chelleh are not the original names of the holiday with Yalda being a borrowed Christian Syriac term and Chelleh just signifying the 40 day division of the festival calendar. It is rather likely we had the Eve of Sadeh (modern Yalda) and the End of Sadeh (modern Sadeh) and that the way Zoroastrians celebrate it today is influenced by Syriac Christmas Eve traditions.
How Is It Celebrated Today?
Sadly, due to historical confusions and the influence of outdated European and American scholarship, there are many misconceptions about Shab-e Yalda. For example, there is a popular belief that it is celebrating the birthday of Mithra despite Zoroastrianism having no stories relating to the birth of Mithra or the birth of any other Yazata or divinity for that matter. It has nothing to do with Mithra though and that insertion is rather recent as Mehregan is already the festival for Mithra and the insertion of Mithra in Yalda is because of popular Christmas-related historical conspiracies believing that Christmas replaced the birthday of Mithra which has no basis in historical fact either. There is also a recent belief prevalent in the Parsi Zoroastrian community that it celebrates the birth of Atar/Adar, the Yazata of Fire, despite Adaregan already being a sacred festival and, once again, no mention of any birth stories relating to this or any Yazata in Zoroastrian literature or even oral tradition. This particular belief is also tied to conspiracy theories revolving around Roman sun worship and, once again, Christmas origin battles that have nothing to do with Zoroastrianism.
Misconception aside, Shab-e Yalda does have some long-lasting traditions associated with it that are still continued today. Normally, Zoroastrians gather together to drink pomegranate juice, read poetry, sing songs, recite prayers and mantras, feast together, tell stories, gather around fires, and celebrate as much as they can because such joy is believed to banish whatever cursed things exist in the darkness and also because it brings emotional and spiritual warmth to share company with one another. Feasting is actually so important that many of the beliefs held about Shab-e Yalda revolve around what foods to eat, when, and why. For example, eating watermelons during Shab-e Yalda is said to guarantee the health and well-being of the individual during the future summer months by “cooling” the body and spirit thus protecting it from high heat or diseases and symptoms caused by an overheated body. In Khorasan and other communities, it is believed that eating carrots, pears, pomegranates, and green olives will help against insects and other noxious creatures, most notably scorpions.Having trouble with joint pains? According to oral tradition, eating garlic on this night will help with that as well. Another curious tradition that has survived though has been transformed is the Fal-e Hafez where the Divan of the famous Iranian poet is used in a divination ritual not more than three times in the night for risk of angering the poet. It is very likely that Fal-e Hafez was once Fal-e Zarathushtra where the Gathas were used for this divining purpose and that the traditions changed over the many centuries of melding with Islamic traditions and cultures that created the unique Iranian culture we see today. Some Zoroastrian families do continue a Fal-e Zarathushtra tradition, however, but it is seen as more of a revival than a continuation.
What Lessons Can We Learn From Shab-e Yalda?
As the nights get darker and the world around us seems bleak, let us remember Rapithwin, the mid-day sun, and the light that Ahura Mazda brings into our lives day after the day. We gather with our loved ones and celebrate because Zarathushtra asks us to bring joy into the world, to love one another, and to beat back the unvirtuous and dark forces that constantly seek to threaten our beautiful and joyous existence. Shab-e Yalda is a night to revel in joy, with each other and the Divine, as we invite the Yazata to descend and celebrate with us and keep us safe, happy, protected, and blessed. Even during these times of a global pandemic, it is good to connect virtually, to call your loved ones, to message them and let them know how much they are loved, to celebrate with them, to wish them well, and, of course, to pray for them. Let us be Ashavans, blessed and protected by Rapithwin and Ahura Mazda, and remember that joy and community are an essential part of our faith and our lives.