Almost at the same time when people are getting ready for Christmas in western countries, people are preparing to celebrate Yalda in Iran. Yalda, meaning birth, is a word taken from Syriac language, spoken by Assyrians in ancient Near East (including modern Iraq, southeast Turkey, southwest Iran, northeastern Syria and Kuwait)!
Iranians believed the day after Yalda (the eve of the first day of winter), the light will last longer. They celebrated the night as Zayeshmehr, meaning the birth of Mithra or Mehr, a god in ancient Persia representing justice and sun!
Iranians were dependent on agriculture and believed light and sun, as the symbols of goodness, are in eternal conflict with darkness and night! Knowing that the last day of autumn is the shortest day of the year, they named its night “Zayeshmehr” and celebrated it because they believed, in their battle, light would win and give birth to sun and in the following days light will prevail darkness!
People used to gather together and make fire at the night, which was believed an ominous night, and pray for the sun to conquer darkness and spend the night drinking and eating fresh fruits till morning so they could see the sun rises!
Iranians are not the only people who celebrated the first day of winter. It is also celebrated among many other religions and ethnic groups such as ancient Greek and Egyptians, modern Russian, Jewish and Assyrians!
The role of Mithraism
A debated belief is that ancient rituals of Mithraism, a widespread cult before Christianity and even Zoroastrianism, together with some other faiths of ancient world, were the origin of many ceremonies held in Christianity and this is the case for Yalda and Christmas too!
One of the common stories says Mithraism, brought to Rome by war captives, spread in ancient Rome in 1st century BC! It became a widespread cult by 4th century AD and over 300 temples were built in Italy at the time! By the reign of Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor who converted to Christianity, Christians got freedom of worship! He eventually issued Yalda as the birthday of Christ to be celebrated as Christ, too, was the symbol of light in Christianity and “Sun” day became their holy day!
But why the date is different?
During years and with the changes in calendar, the beginning of winter was changed too. Therefore, Yalda which was at the same day as Christmas (25th of December), moved to 21st of December!
What to do in Yalda?
A common myth about Yalda (also called Shab-e Cheleh or “night of forty”) says in this night Kings would live like common people and there was no privilege between people from different social classes! People would bring their fruits and nuts, gather together and would tell stories!
Parts of these rituals is being practiced in modern Iran; people gather in the house of elders, talking and eating pomegranate, watermelon, nuts, pastry and other fresh fruits! Reading poems of Hafez and interpreting the poems and relating it to the person’s current life and also choosing one walnut from a bag, as a way of predicting the person’s future (its being empty means the person would not face great opportunities in near future), are some of the common rituals of the night!
All ethnic groups in Iran, have their own rituals for the night for example one of which is sending gift to the house of an engaged girl by the family of her fiancé!