Yalda is an ancient traditional event annually celebrated by Iranians to mark the longest night of the year as the symbol of sun overcoming the dark. Yalda night, also known as “Shab-e-Chelleh” is the last day of the ninth month of the Iranian civil calendar and is elaborately celebrated with families gathering together to read Persian poetry and feast on tasty foods, desserts and lots of fruits! Let’s see what this celebration is all about.
How did it start?
According to historical and archeological studies, Yalda night was celebrated since 7000 years ago. But it was officially added to the Iranian calendar in the time of Darius I.
In the ancient times, the lives of Iranians were predominantly dependent on agriculture. As weather and specially the sun played prominent roles in agricultural prosperity, Iranians had great respect for the daylight as the symbol of life.
It’s understandable that for an agrarian society, day and night can be regarded as two rivals as day symbolizes the good and night can be regarded as the symbol of evil. Ancient Iranians believed that these two are in constant conflict and the longest night of the year was known as a time when the dark could defeat the life-giving light of the sun. But instead of getting upset and fearing the dark of the longest night of the year, Iranians decided to gather together, celebrate and stay up all night until the light triumphs over the dark at dawn.
What do Iranians do during Yalda night?
There’s a reason why Iranians have been celebrating Yalda since thousands of years ago. It’s all fun and festive! Imagine a long night of staying up with family and relatives, spending hours reading poetry, listening to old stories from the elderly and eating lots of tasty foods that are especially made for this delightful night. Also, those who can play music bring their instruments along and add more bliss to the long hours of Yalda.
The Old Stories of Grandparents
One of the most celebrated traditions of Yalda is gathering at grandparents’ homes and listening to their old and sweet stories. Traditionally, the family would gather around “korsi” to listen to the stories while eating the tasty snacks that the grandparents had prepared. This tradition is a very joyous memory for any Iranian who has grown up in Iran.
But you might ask what Korsi is.
Korsi is a short square table covered with a thick blanket. People would sit around the korsi and cover their bodies with the blanket in order to keep themselves warm during the cold nights of winter. Nowadays, people put electric heaters under the korsi for more warmth and feeling of comfort. But some prefer to keep it traditional. Either way, it’s an enjoyable experience to sit around a table, get covered with a large blanket and get lost in the world of stories narrated by others.
Foods and Snacks of Yalda Celebration
The best part of it for sure! Yalda is a night to mark Persian cuisine and enjoy flavors that have thoughtfully been added to the wintry dinner table.
Fruits are the main elements of Yalda night! Pomegranate and watermelon are integral components of this celebration. Red color, symbolizing sun, is regarded as an important element of Yalda decorations. Therefore these two very red fruits can be found in every Iranian household during the longest night of the year. In addition, watermelon reminds us of summer as a popular fruit of the warm months. And since the point of celebrating Yalda is to defeat the dark and cold of night, Iranians add a summer fruit to their Yalda night table as a representation of warmth of sun.
Ajil-e-Shab-e-Chelleh: The colorful Persian nuts
Ajil is the Persian word for a combination of nuts which is mainly used as a snack or treat in parties and gatherings. Iranians have special Ajil mixes for Shab-e-Chelleh (Yalda) that are made from pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, raisins, dried figs, dried chickpeas, dried mulberries, sugar coated almonds (noghl), roasted seeds and dried fruits. Also, colorful sweets very similar to Turkish delights are other ingredients of the Yalda Ajil mix.
It’s interesting to know that the tradition of eating dried fruits in Yalda dates back to the time when there wasn’t a way to keep fruits for a long time and the only way to store them for winter was to keep them dried.
Decorated Yalda Cookies and Cupcakes
While the traditions of Yalda have been kept alive for more than centuries, some modern elements have been added to them gradually. Nowadays, a lot of Iranians prepare cookies and cupcakes for this night and decorate them with pomegranates or even shape them like watermelons to give a modern twist to their Yalda dinner table. Most confectioneries prepare pomegranate or watermelon shaped cakes for Shab-e-Chelleh which are very popular and should be ordered days before Yalda night.
Foods that contain pomegranate are the most favored ones for this long and lively night. Anar Polo (rice and pomegranate), Ash-e-Anar (Pomegranate Pottage) and Khoresh-e-Anardoon (Pomegranate Stew) are some of the most delicious ones.
For desserts, a lot of Iranians opt for Pomegranate Tart and Watermelon Jelly to make their Yalda dinner table even more inviting.
Fortune-Telling by Hafez Verses
This might sound strange to a lot of people, but Iranians have a long-standing tradition of fortune-telling with poems of their favorite poet, Hafez. And we bet you’ll get addicted to it once you give it a try! One of the most entertaining parts of Yalda night is when people do the fortune-telling one by one.
It works this way:
You have to close your eyes and make a wish in your mind. Then you open the book of “Poems of Hafez” randomly and read the first verse that is displayed on the right hand page. Then the poem will be read aloud and interpreted in a way that can be responsive to your wish.
Most of the poems written by Hafez are hopeful and promising. That’s why people love to try it over and over again!
Reading the Epic of Shahnameh
Shahnameh, a long Persian epic poem consisting of 50,000 couplets written by Ferdowsi, is another element of Yalda celebration. Reading parts of Shahnameh as the national epic of Greater Iran makes Yalda family gatherings more exciting; especially if a family member has the skills of narrating Shahnameh in the special Persian style of solo performance called “Naghali”.
Iran is not the only country that celebrates Yalda
Although the celebration of Yalda or Shab-e-Chelleh originally started from Iran, there are other countries that join the feast every year! Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia celebrate the victory of daylight over dark at the same time of the year and keep the tradition alive.
If joining Iran’s cultural events and celebrations sounds interesting to you, feel free to contact us for more information about our itineraries. Here at Land of Turquoise Domes we do our best to make your visit to Iran an unforgettable memory!