Chelleh Eve: A Persian Celebration of Hope When You Are Desperate
December 21, the last night of fall, is also the longest night of the year. For Iranians, it is an occasion for visiting one another, eating watermelon and nuts, and reading Persian poetry.
Shab Chelleh or Shab Yalda is the name of this first night of winter, which coincides with the winter solstice since the Iranian calendar corresponds to the natural calendar. Iranians have been observing Yalda with special ceremonies since ancient times.
Ancient Iranians believed that after this long night, the Sun is reborn and nature restarts its life cycle. According to Iranian myths and legends, Yalda is the birth of love in the first day of winter.
The Yalda celebration, like other ancient Iranian rituals, is rooted in cosmic events. Although some Iranians mistakenly believe that the Yalda ceremony is meant to dispel the curse of the first day of winter, in reality, no night or day is considered cursed in Iranian beliefs. Iranians consider happiness a blessing bestowed by God and regard sorrow a satanic phenomenon.
Yalda’s other name is Shab Chelleh (night of the forty). The number forty has been held sacred by Iranians since ancient times, when they divided wintertime into two forty-day periods. Thus the last night of fall was also the first night of the first forty-day period of winter.
Ancient people had an intimate knowledge of nature and its symbols. Most of them were either shepherds or farmers, and nature was part of their everyday life. They had understood the movements of the Sun, Moon, and the stars, as well as the changes in the length of days and nights, and they used this knowledge to plan their daily activities. They had realized that the shortest day of the year was the last day of fall and that its night was the longest night.
Many civilizations have celebrated the last day of fall as the day when the Sun was born, with rituals very similar to those of Iranians. In some cases, influences of the Iranian culture on those rituals are quite evident.
In the past, the day following Yalda was called the day of the Sun’s birth. The ancient Iranians had special rituals for that night, including staying awake until the Sun came up (was reborn). The presence of elders in every family symbolized the long life of the Sun.
Yalda was an occasion when family and friends would meet and light bonfires. Then they would arrange a spread of food items that included fresh and dried fruits. The spread held religious significance and was sacred. People asked the god of Sun for light and blessings to survive the winter. Fresh and dried fruits were also a symbol of the blessings of spring and summer. Everybody spent the night beside fire to keep demons away.
The people of Persia usually did not work on the day after Yalda. They did not want to do anything wrong on that day because wrongdoing on the day that the Sun was born was considered very grave.
The first day of winter was also a day for equality among human beings. Everybody wore simple clothes on that day, even kings. Nobody could give orders to others, and everything was done voluntarily, not by command. War and bloodshed, even slaughtering sheep and poultry, were forbidden on that day.
Yalda is still characterized by night parties in which all family members participate. They eat nuts, watermelon, pomegranates, sweets, and other fruits, all of which symbolize blessings, health, abundance, and happiness. It is customary for them to read the poems of Hafez, the world-renowned Iranian poet.
Watermelon and pomegranate are major elements of Yalda celebrations because their redness symbolizes the color of the rising Sun. In addition to these most important fruits, Iranian people of different regions garnish their food spreads in different ways. People of Azarbaijan decorate their spreads with watermelon surrounded by red scarves. People in northern Iran decorate a big fish and take it to a newlywed couple. In northern Iran and Azarbaijan, they also send a special small decorated basket of food to a newlywed couple.
In Shiraz, the Yalda spread is as colorful as the Norouz spread. People of Shiraz put everything on the traditional spread, from citrus fruits and watermelon to dates and sweets baked with dates. Since Hafez was born in Shiraz, reading his poems is indispensable for the people of Shiraz, even beyond the widespread tradition of reading Hafez’ poems all through Iran in the Yalda ceremonies.
Telling fortunes with the aid of needles is common in Hamedan. Everybody sits around a room and an old woman continuously reads poems. A young girl hits a bit of cloth with a needle after each poem ends and each subsequent poem is considered to be telling the fortune of the guests, in the order of their seating. In other parts of Hamedan, people eat sweets and nuts grown in their region.
In Khorasan, people often read Ferdowsi’s poems.
In Ardebil, people customarily beg the first half of winter to take it easy. They usually eat scorched wheat, watermelon, walnut kernels, peas, and raisins.
Watermelon is indispensable in Gilan, as people here believe that the person who eats watermelon in Yalda will not feel thirsty in summer, nor cold in winter.
The people of Kerman wait until sunrise to welcome the legendary Qaroun, who is believed to appear as a woodcutter bringing wooden sticks to poor families. Those pieces of wood are believed to turn into gold and bring wealth and blessings to that family.
In folkloric culture, Yalda is a night of friendship, with public meetings and charitable activities.
Mir-Jalaleddin Kazzazi, a master of Iranian language and literature, believes that the Christmas ceremony is an imitation of Yalda. He says, “Yalda is the longest night of the year and one of the greatest Iranian celebrations. Iranians have always loved merrymaking, and their celebrations were accompanied with light. They considered the Sun as symbol of the good and paid tribute to it in their festivities. In the longest night of the year, the Sun found new importance. The people of Iran stayed awake until sunrise to see it coming up and pay tribute to it. Eating foods and nuts was a means of staying awake. A reason for this night’s celebration was the birth of the Sun God.”
He adds, “Romans also celebrated the birth of the Sun and the beginning of winter, considering it as the beginning of the year. Even after the spread of Christianity, priests could not prevent that festival and were forced to introduce it as the birthday of Jesus Christ. So, December 25 was declared the birthday of Christ instead of the birthday of the Sun God. Ancient Iranians usually adorned a cedar tree with two silver and golden strings. Later, Christians adorned a pine in an imitation of Iranians. Another imitation by Christians was considering Sunday as their sacred day. Sunday was the day of the Sun on which followers of the Sun God paid tribute to him.”
Yalda is a festival of peace and friendship that is widely observed by people of every walk of life and religious background in Iran and in certain other countries as well. Yalda is a time when people wait for the sunrise and the warmth of the Sun that gives life to nature. The short interval between Christmas (December 25) and Yalda (December 21), and the similarity of the rituals related to the two festivals, show the universal experience and values among people from all religious backgrounds. Recognition of such ancient rituals as a common human heritage will introduce young people to the globally held values inherent in such celebrations and thus help to protect these values. It will also provide the foundation for these traditions to be handed down to future generations.