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Yalda, the night of birth
An Iranian festivity like Christmas

 Yalda, la notte della nascita  La festività  iraniana come un Natale   DCM-011
02 December 2023

Shab-e Yalda is the longest night of the year, which runs from sunset on the 30 azar day and sunrise on the 1 day. It falls on the ninth and tenth months of the Iranian calendar -one of the most accurate in the world- and came into effect on 1 farvardin of the solar 458 Hejira (corresponding to March 15 of the 1079 Julian calendar) devised by the great Iranian mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam, best known as a Poet.

Yalda is a very important Persian holiday and has been celebrated for more than 8,000 years. It falls in conjunction with December 21 and 22 of the Gregorian calendar and has some similarities with Christian holidays. Until five centuries ago, these were the days of the feast of St Lucy, the shortest day. This coincided with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year before the calendar reform desired in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. His reform sought to buffer the errors of the Julian calendar, which would have led to Easter being celebrated increasingly toward summer. Thus, 441 years ago the days from October 5 to 14 were removed from the calendar, and St. Lucy, which previously coincided with the winter solstice, now falls about ten days earlier.

The long night of Yalda is full of meaning. The Persian magi and sages inserted the hope of the birth of Light from darkness in the middle of the cold and dark winter, and indicated with this astronomical truth that dark and cold days are always followed by the arrival of the sun. Today it is well known that as early as December 22 the day is lengthened by one minute, and therefore in Yalda we celebrate the birth of the sun, which is invincible even when everything seems dark.

Yalda in the Syriac language means birth, natal. The 10th-century philosopher and mathematician Al-Biruni names Yalda as the major natal, the birth of the sun.

The holiday, recognized as an intangible heritage by UNESCO, is not only celebrated in Iran, but is still alive in Azerbayjan, Turkmanistan, Turkey, Tajik Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northern India.

Participants keep vigil together all night, waiting for dawn, setting tables full of foods often red in color, symbolizing sunshine and joy, and there are pomegranate, watermelon, dried fruits, various kinds of sweets, lights shared with the whole family, while incense and scents are lit. Poems by Hafez, the famous Persian mystic and poet, are read, and the older members of the family read the verses and historical accounts of Ferdowsi, the greatest epic poet of medieval Persian literature, who with his poem Shah name, Book of Kings, recounts the thousand-year history of ancient Persia, which guides the reader toward knowledge and reason.

Yalda is also named as “the night of cehelle”, the night of the 40, referring to the fact that it is the first of 40 days of winter, Lent.

Many Persian poets have composed poems about Yalda. They are from the year 1100 these verses by the poet and sage Sana’i :

If you are seeking fame and success linked to a sage,

have you not seen how Yalda became famous by tying herself to Jesus?

by Shahrzad Houshmand Zadeh