Shab-e Yalda or Yalda Night, also known as Chelleh Night, is one of the oldest Iranian celebrations, held with great enthusiasm on the longest night of the year, the last night of autumn.
Similar to Chaharshanbe Suri and Nowruz, Yalda Night is an ancient Iranian festival that starts at sunset on the last day of autumn and ends at sunrise on the first day of winter. Yalda has always held a special place in Iranian culture, both before and after Islam, serving as a time for family gatherings.
On the eve of Yalda, Iranian families experience immense excitement as they prepare for the celebration. Buying fruits like watermelon and pomegranate, and nuts is a primary activity for Iranians on this night. In this article Parsi Tours team will talk about every detail of this amazing night.
Yalda Night History
Yalda Night, also known as Chelleh Night or the Unconquerable Sun, marks the last night of autumn and the longest night of the year. The celebration of Yalda among Iranians dates back over 7,000 years. Our ancestors recognized that the first night of winter was the longest night of the year. Although no Iranian government has ever emphasized its celebration, Iranians have traditionally observed Yalda Night.
Ancient Iranians, who were farmers and herders, based their lives on nature, significantly affected by the changing seasons and the length of day and night. They revered light, warmth, and longer days, but found winter, cold, and longer nights less desirable.
In the Mehr (Mithraism) tradition, the last night of autumn is celebrated as the birth night of the sun. According to Dr. Mehrdad Bahar in “From Myth to History,” Yalda Night is not the birth of Mehr or Mithra, but rather the sun. The sun and Mehr have differences.
According to the calendar of ancient Iranian people, Chelleh coincides with the sun’s birthday. Even after Iranians converted to Zoroastrianism, Mehr traditions became part of the Zoroastrian customs. Zoroastrians considered the first day of Dey month as “Khur-roz” or Sun Day. During the Sassanian era, when Zoroastrianism was the official religion, the importance of Mehr rituals was evident in government institutions and in people’s lives.
In the Mehr tradition, Iranian kings would leave their thrones on the first day of Dey, dress in white, and sit on a white mat. Guards and servants were free on this day and lived like others. Thus, from the king to ordinary people, everyone had equal status, and nobody could command others. Additionally, shedding blood and waging war were forbidden on this day. Enemies of Iran, aware of this practice, would temporarily cease fighting, sometimes leading to prolonged peace.
Ancient Iranians, honoring “Ahura Mazda” and “Mehr,” would gather and celebrate with eating and drinking. The “Miyazd” table, meaning hospitality, would be set with seasonal fruits and nuts, known as “Lork” in Zoroastrian terminology. Worship items like incense burners, fire containers, and perfumers were also placed on this table.
After the spread of Mehr rituals in Europe, Yalda Night or Chelleh Night was celebrated as the birth of Mehr and light. Even after the spread of Christianity, these customs remained among the people and Romans. Various Christian sects decided around 350 AD to introduce January 6th as the birth of Christ. However, due to the influence of Mithraism, the Roman Church was forced to set Jesus Christ’s birthday on the same day as Mithra’s birth, aiming to overshadow the Mehr celebration.
With the growing power of the Roman Church, other Christian denominations followed suit, but the Armenian and Eastern Orthodox churches still consider January 6th as Christ’s birthday. Researchers believe December 21st or 25th, as suggested by the Bible, relates to the farming season and mild weather and is not the actual birthday of Jesus Christ. The first Christmas celebrations, a gift from ancient Iran to the world, have remained alive to this day.
The word “Noel” has Roman roots, derived from “Natal,” meaning birth. Interestingly, Santa Claus’s hat resembles the hat of Mithraism priests. The pine tree and star in Christmas celebrations are also legacies of the Mithraism tradition. Romans considered evergreen trees like pine as symbols of Mithra’s power over winter and cold. In carvings from the Mithraism tradition, one can see pine or cypress trees next to Mithra and Anahita, depicted in Iranian decorative patterns as arabesque.
What is Yalda Night?
The time between sunset on the 30th of Azar (Iranian Month) and sunrise on the first of Dey (The next month after Azar) is considered Yalda Night. In “Burhan-e Qate'”, written by “Mohammad Hossein bin Khalaf Tabrizi,” the word “Yalda” is explained as the first night of winter and the last night of autumn, the longest night of the year. It is traditionally considered an inauspicious night.
In the past, Iranians spent this night on the slopes of the Alborz Mountains, waiting for the dawn and the rebirth of the sun. In some Mehr worship places, rituals were held on Yalda Night to seek victory over Ahriman (Devil) and the triumph of Mehr from God.
When is Yalda Night?
On the first day of Dey month each year, the Earth reaches the winter solstice point, marking the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere. Interestingly, the length of the night varies in the Northern Hemisphere; for example, day and night are equal at the equator, and the length of this night increases towards the poles. The length of Yalda Night depends on geographical location.
Yalda Night, the sun’s farthest distance from the celestial equator, results in the longest night of the year, although this length is only a minute different from other nights.
Reason for Naming Chelleh Night
The number 40 has always had a special place in Iranian culture. Ancient Iranians divided winter into “Big Chelleh” and “Small Chelleh,” each spanning forty days. The last night of Azar is called Chelleh because it marks the start of Big Chelleh and the onset of winter’s cold. Forty days later, the Sadeh festival is held to celebrate the end of Big Chelleh and the start of Small Chelleh.
Etymology of “Yalda”
Regarding the etymology of “Yalda,” there are different views. Some believe it is a Syriac word, related to various Arabic words for “birth”, suggesting the birth of the sun god Mehr. Another theory by Giti Pourfazel suggests “Yalda” is an Avestan word, combining “Yal” (year) and “Da” (light), meaning “the light of the year.”
Yalda Night Customs
Yalda Night, like other Iranian festivals, is celebrated as a family gathering with a special table of treats. In most regions, these treats are called “Shab-Chereh,” typically consisting of seven types of nuts and fruits. However, the variety sometimes extends beyond seven, including traditional and non-traditional sweets.
With Yalda Night approaching, there’s a buzz in the streets as people prepare for this ancient celebration. Street vendors sell special treats for the night. The celebration is often hosted by elders and is very memorable. The most important part is family and relatives gathering to spend the longest night of the year together in joy and conversation.
Yalda Night Practices
Poetry and storytelling are fascinating parts of Yalda Night, though they are fading today. In the past, elders entertained guests with stories from Shahnameh and moral poems.
The Divan of Hafez at the Yalda Table
Reading Hafez’s Divan is a special Yalda Night custom. Guests pay homage to Hafez and seek fortunes from his Divan. Another tradition involved breaking a walnut and interpreting the future based on whether it was hollow.
Eating Yalda Night Nuts
The most popular and delicious part of Yalda Night is eating nuts, often a mix of various nuts and dried fruits with many health benefits.
Eating Yalda Night Fruits
Iranians don’t just eat nuts on Yalda Night; various fruits also adorn their Yalda table. Watermelon is essential, as eating a summer fruit is believed to ward off winter cold. Pomegranate, a symbol of joy and birth, is also a staple, nutritious and rich in vitamin C. From persimmon to loquat, apple, and orange, various fruits are part of the longest night’s fruit basket. But why are watermelon and pomegranate the stars of Yalda Night fruits?
In Iranian culture, the importance of the color red dates back five thousand years. Iranians originally came from a place with ten months of winter and two of summer, so the warmth of the sun was vital to them. Thus, anything related to the sun, like the crimson of dawn, was cherished. The importance of red on Yalda Night stems from this belief, and the color of these delicious fruits originates from the appreciation of dawn’s crimson hue.
Pumpkin also becomes widely available as Yalda Night approaches, adding warmth to the Yalda table with its attractive orange color and symbolizing the triumph of day over night. In addition to pumpkin, some families also cook beetroot, a symbol of daylight and blessing, for their guests.
Preparing Yalda Night Food
Yalda Night provides an ideal opportunity for family reunions. People put great effort into preparing a delicious dinner for this occasion. The iranian food menu for dinner varies by city, ranging from herb rice with fish to barberry rice, pomegranate rice, Shirazi cabbage rice, and more, enhancing the joy of togetherness.
Yalda Night Tradition for Newlyweds
On the last day of Azar, families of newlyweds exchange gifts known as “Yalda Night gifts.” This tradition varies by region and is performed uniquely. The practice originated from a time when engaged couples could only meet on special occasions like Yalda Night. The groom’s family would bring Yalda gifts to the bride’s family, asking for her presence at their home. Gifts include rock candy, assorted sweets, fabric, handbags and shoes, winter clothes, a piece of gold, nuts, dried fruits, chicken, meat, and more, varying by locality.
Lighting Fires on Yalda Night
In ancient times, lighting fires symbolized light and the sun. Some people lit fires to ward off darkness and evil spirits.
Yalda Night in Persian Poetry
Yalda Night has significantly influenced Persian literature and poetry. Poets have used the darkness of Yalda Night as a metaphor for separation and longing.
Persian Poets and Yalda
Many Persian poets from different historical periods, like Anvari, Hafez, Saadi, Attar, Vahshi Bafqi, Manuchehri Damghani, Khaju Kermani, Ubayd Zakani, and Amir Khusrow, have used “Yalda” to symbolize long and dark nights, often referring to the beloved’s hair or nights of separation.
The Significance of “Chelleh” and “Yalda”
Both “Chelleh” and “Yalda” are deeply rooted in Persian language and culture. “Chelleh” reflects the influence of different seasons on daily life, while “Yalda” is tied to ancient beliefs about the rebirth of the sun on the winter solstice.
Yalda Night in Iranian Cities
Different Iranian cities celebrate Yalda Night based on their cultural and geographical backgrounds. While some traditions have been forgotten, their memory remains.
Yalda Night Around the World
Yalda Night is not exclusive to Iran and is celebrated differently worldwide. About four thousand years ago, Egyptians celebrated the birth of the sun during Yalda for twelve days, abstaining from war and violence. In Sweden and France, people stay up all night, while in Southern Russia, people prepare animal and human-shaped sweets.
In Pakistan, besides praying on Yalda Night, people take a winter bath and celebrate with fireworks and a meal made from goat stomach.
In East Asian countries like Japan, China, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, families gather on the last day of autumn and eat Tang Yuan and rice balls, symbolizing family unity.
In Japan, people take a citrus bath on this day to prevent colds and ward off negative energies.
South Koreans eat rice and red beans on the last day of autumn and sprinkle a special liquid around their homes to repel evil spirits, following an old Chinese legend.
In Scotland, a tradition called “First Footing” is similar to the Iranian “Qashoq Zani” during Nowruz, where people visit neighbors’ houses asking for gifts like salt, bread, fruit pudding, drinks, sweets, and chocolate.
In Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, a ritual called “Sun Rope Tying” involves going to high places and pretending to tie the sun to a stone to lengthen the days.
In West Africa, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and parts of Virginia and Carolina, people wear unique costumes like cow heads, devils, angels, horse figures, etc., and celebrate joyfully in the streets.
In summary, Yalda Night is a special celebration on the longest night of the year. It’s important in Iranian culture, bringing people together to enjoy food, stories, and poems. This night is about hope and the victory of light over darkness. Did you like learning about Yalda Night? If so, leave a comment and share your thoughts or experiences!