The Festival of Yalda’s Ancient Links to Christmas

By Fred Parvaneh

While Christians all over the world are preparing to celebrate Christmas, Iranians living inside and outside the country are celebrating one of their most ancient festivities: Yalda.

Just as Nowruz (the Persian New Year) marks the first day of Spring, Yalda or Shabeh Yalda (Night of Birth) or Shabeh Chehelleh (Fortieth Night) coincides with the celebration of the Winter Solstice and with the longest night of the year.

On or around December 21st, Iranian families get together (generally at the home of the eldest family member) and stay up all night reading classic poems by Hafez and other Persian poets. They snack on dry fruits and nuts (ajeel-e-Shab-E-Yalda), watermelons and pomegranates, and feast on a sumptuous main course of rice and Fesenjan (chicken, walnut and pomegranate stew).

Yalda, which means birth, is a Syriac word imported into the Persian language. The holiday dates back thousands of years to the birth of Mithra, the God of Light in the Zoroastrian religion.

In the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition, the longest and darkest night of the year was a particularly inauspicious occasion. The intention was to protect oneself from evil during that long night.

People were advised to stay awake most of the night, lest misfortune should befall them. They would gather together with friends and relatives, share the last remaining fruits of summer, and find ways to spend the long nights together by lighting candles, symbol of the victory of light over darkness.

Over the years, there has been much speculation about Christmas being based on Yalda. It is difficult to establish the exact truth, though there are uncanny resemblances between the two traditions.

In the ancient battles between the Persians and the Romans, many Roman soldiers came to embrace the Mithraic worship of nature and beauty. As a result, Mithraism spread from Persia to Rome. Early Christians, it is believed, took the Persian celebration of Mithra and linked it to Christ’s Birthday. It is also noteworthy that Epiphany, or the “Feast of the Three Holy Kings,” commemorates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, the Magi.

The Magi, who were well-known astrologers, saw a bright newborn star in the sky and predicted the birth of Christ. Originally, the Magi had been disciples of Zoroaster. They wore ancient Persian clothing, and according to unverified legend, set out from the holy city of Qum in Iran to Jerusalem to greet the infant Christ as the newly born king of the Jews, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Ancient Persians also decorated an evergreen tree called ‘sarv’ which is resistant to cold weather and a symbol of resilience in the face of hardship – an appropriate way of celebrating Mithra. Children in Persia were encouraged to wrap their “wishes” in colorful silk cloths and hang them on the tree in the hope that they would come true.

It is said that in the mid-16th century, the German Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, having heard of the Yalda ‘sarv’, introduced the Christmas tree to his compatriots and followers.

We wish our readers a Happy Yalda and a Merry Christmas.