Yalda in Iran hails the triumph of light over darkness with poetry and fruit


The longest nights of the year, corresponding to December, had a festive culture in Iranian culture. The Shab-e Yalda (Yalda Night) winter solstice festival annually brings together members of Iranian families, such as the Goodarzis, for nocturnal festivities imbued with poetry, music and fruit.

They gather around the “korsi”, a heated coffee table, which is carefully decorated with fresh and dried fruits, candies, candles, flowers and a book of poetry by the 14th century Persian poet Hafez Shirazi, also known under the name of Hafez.

The oldest member of the family recites poems from “Diwan e Hafez” (“Diwan of Hafez”) – diwan is a collection of poems by a poet – with a Sufi air in the background, creating a spiritual ambience.

Grenades occupy the most important place on the table on Yalda’s night. (Photo from Sabah file)

Fruits are an essential part of the Yalda festivities. Pomegranates occupy the most important place on the table – symbolizing rebirth and renewal. Melons and other fruits signify fertility, light and goodness.

The “longest night of the year” for Iranian families is also the most special, spent in family reunions and quiet celebrations until dawn.

“I associate Yalda Night with vibrant red hues, the scent of pomegranates and melons, the moving poetry of Hafez, family reunions, all that is good and happy in life,” Sahar Goodarzi said, a university student from Tehran.

“It is an integral and fascinating part of centuries-old Persian culture and heritage, older than many other festivals around the world,” she told Anadolu (AA) agency.

The ancient fiesta is widely celebrated in Iran, and even by Iranians living abroad. It is also popular in neighboring countries like Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan.

Night of birth

Shab-e Yalda, which translates to “night of birth” in the ancient Syriac language and is between December 21 and 22, dates back to the pre-Islamic period when the majority of Iranians followed Zoroastrianism.

The festival marks the end of fall and the start of winter. It is also considered the “longest and darkest night of the year” in the northern hemisphere.

“After Nevruz (called Nowruz in Persian), the Iranian New Year, the night of Yalda, also called Chelleh, has to be the most important and most anticipated event of the year for Iranians,” Sareh Atoofy said. .

Liners from a 19th century copy of the
Liners from a 19th century copy of “Diwan e Hafez.” (Wikimedia)

Atoofy’s family, who live on the outskirts of Tehran, have maintained the ritual of decorating Yalda’s table and making elaborate preparations for the celebrations that continue until after midnight.

“There is a palpable sense of excitement attached to the Yalda night celebrations, which has not changed all these years,” she said (AA). “This year’s table is already decorated.”

For Alireza Hashemi, the favorite part of the Yalda festivities is a practice known as “Fal e Hafez” where a person instinctively opens Hafez’s book of poetry and reads the last line of the poem on this page, which is believed to convey what fate has in store for that person, at least this year.

“I do it every year on Yalda night, and I think everyone (in Iran) does it,” Hashemi told AA. “Call it what you can, but it’s mostly spot on, absolutely accurate and precise.”

UNESCO label

In recent years, Iran has made considerable efforts to inscribe the Yalda festival on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which aims to protect important intangible cultural heritages around the world.

He submitted his first proposal to the United Nations cultural body in March 2015. The proposal stated that Yalda is known as “one of the oldest national festivals in the country” and that “the sympathy and love of the public give this ritual festival one of its defining characteristics.

Among the features of the festival listed on the proposal were “the exceptional presence of the color red” – red pomegranates, red watermelons, red grape products, etc., which she said “are inseparable parts of the ceremonies” .

A waiter prepares dishes to be served to customers in a traditional restaurant during the celebrations of the
A waiter prepares food to serve to customers in a traditional restaurant during the celebrations of the “Yalda Night” festival in central Tehran, Iran on December 21, 2007. (Photo Reuters)

AA has learned that the issue will likely be discussed at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting scheduled for mid-June in Russia.

According to officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, a total of 3.18 million tonnes of watermelons have been harvested from 83,937 hectares during the current year, of which only 166,000 tonnes since the start of the fall for meet the high demand as Yalda Night approaches.

The festival has been a low-key affair for the past two years since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, with authorities urging people not to hold public events on the occasion.

The identification of the first case of the omicron variant in Iran, two days before the Yalda festival, may further curb the spirit of celebration, Ramin Khoshlessan fears.

“Yes, that risks weighing on the mind, as the battle against the pandemic is far from over,” he told AA. “But it should be fine as long as people adhere to health protocols,” he said.

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