The longest night: Celebration of the Iranian festival of Yalda

The ancient Persian custom of marking the winter solstice continues in diaspora communities around the world, including summer New Zealand.

In a few days, my family and friends will be gathering to celebrate Shab-eh Yalda (the longest night), an Iranian holiday that predates Islam by over a thousand years. It is so ancient that it may predate Zoroastrian, the 5th century BCE Iranian religion that continues to exist in Iran, India, and North America.

In the northern hemisphere, Yalda is the last night of autumn and the start of 90 winter days before the Iranian New Year, No’Rooz (“new day”, the first day of spring). Historically, Yalda was considered to be an inauspicious time, and staying awake all night was believed to protect the people of Ahriman, the evil spirit. So, family and friends would gather inside, eat the last remaining summer fruits and try to fight against sleep.

As in most cultural celebrations, food plays a central role in Yalda. It is part of the symbolism of the night, and there are several fruits and nuts that are still eaten. First and foremost, the pomegranate, which symbolizes the cycle of life. Some families, including mine (much to my regret), sprinkle a little ground angelica on the pomegranate when serving. Persian cuisine is based on a balance between so-called “cold” and “hot” foods. Pomegranate is considered a “cold” fruit, so you need angelica (“hot”) to balance the dish. Another must-have is watermelon, which symbolizes health and well-being. Yalda also means making a point of eating summer fruits at the start of winter (to protect you from the cold, of course). Persimmon and medlar, an ancient fruit that tastes like apple butter with hints of cinnamon and vanilla, are also commonly eaten. The red color of these fruits is essential: it symbolizes the purple hues of dawn and the radiance of life. Dried fruits, seeds, and nuts are another overnight staple – the combination is called ajil in Persian, and together they mean wealth and prosperity.

Yalda essentials including nuts, pomegranate and watermelon (Photo: provided)

Finally, candy, of course. Iranians, without exaggeration, have the biggest sweet tooth (teeth?) In the world, and no event can happen “properly” without lots of candy. The traditional for Yalda is baslogh, a sweet starch-based candy infused with rosewater, ground cardamom, saffron, pistachios, slivered almonds and dried rose petals, but no Yalda feast It’s complete without mounds of other sweets and pastries.

The part of Yalda that I resisted as a child, and which my own children now similarly resist, is poetry reading. The most popular choice is the 14th century poet Hafez, whose mystical and lyrical poetry that my seventh-grade Farsi (Persian) upbringing cannot even begin to comprehend. But even I can say that the English translation does not do the original justice:

Even though our world is turned upside down and windswept,

If you are without doubt, you will not lose anything.

O Hafez, if it is union with the Beloved that you seek,

Be the dust at the Sage’s door and speak!

Hafez’s poems are often deceptively complex, open to a range of interpretations that transcend the apparent simplicity of his verses. Like most educated people in Persian-speaking countries, my father and older siblings could recite Hafez’s poems by heart and use them as everyday proverbs.

Iran has a rich tradition of lyrical poets, including Saadi, Rumi, and Omar Khayyam. (The latter is perhaps the best-known Persian poet in the West. Interestingly, in Iran, however, Khayyam is more often identified for his scientific work than for his literature.) And, of course, there is Ferdowsi, the 10th century poet who wrote Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), one of the longest epic poems in the world created by a single poet and the national epic of Greater Iran.

However, years ago my friends and family of mixed ancestry came to our own version of poetry reading for Yalda. Instead of focusing on traditional poets, we write our own political, social, feminist, random, and absurd poems, although some still insist on bringing more serious poems from other sources. We all love to eat, so serving all kinds of food from all parts of the world, combined with the traditional essentials of Yalda – which in our group includes a large amount of wine and spirits – gives the poetry of the night a different meaning. . In our different levels of drunkenness, we find more meaning, more weight and more humor in our poems. One-upmanship is undoubtedly part of our tradition.

The author’s Yalda Night broadcast (Photo provided)

The longest night in the northern hemisphere is December 20 or 21. And every year, depending on everyone’s Christmas vacation plans, we celebrate Yalda in New Orleans, California, or New Zealand (where it’s rather the longest day in Yalda). Last year, of course, our celebration took place virtually. Instead of sitting together around a table, we watched each other eat and drink from our little Zoom boxes on our screens, this time trying to outdo each other across the world.

Sharing poetry, whether it’s Hafez’s Divān or my family’s original poems, defines Shab-ehYalda for me: it’s a ritual that can be sublime without the heavy burden of obedience. It’s a tradition as old as Iran, but it’s also modern and fresh, transcending the barriers that certain religious customs sometimes impose. I always like to compare Yalda to the American Thanksgiving tradition: a day spent with family and friends dining and experiencing a shared event like watching a football game or going for a long walk. Yalda is also an all inclusive and welcoming vacation that connects the past to the present and, I hope, through my daughters and my friends’ children, to the future.

I try to imagine people 2000 years ago hovering around a fire in their little mud huts, trying to warm themselves while eating summer harvest fruits, hoping to survive Ahriman and see the sunrise from the sun. And then, centuries later, other people gathered for a more festive night, reading about Persian poets who had helped preserve the language after the so-called 200 years of silence, when Arabic was the only language. of the Persian court and intelligentsia. While Yalda is a deeply rooted custom, it has nevertheless lost some of its splendor for the younger generation in Iran. But now, with our own kind of vigilance, the Iranian diaspora is trying to preserve this simple but beautiful tradition – at least, our version of it.

Mahyar Amouzegar is dean and senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of New Orleans and a writer. His latest novel is The pride of an empty hand.

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