The last day of Autumn marks one of the most important long-celebrated holidays in Iran. Yalda Night (Shab-e Yalda) or what some people refer to it, “Shab-e Chelleh” is an ancient Iranian festival where the longest and darkest night of the year is celebrated by everyone. Yalda night is celebrated on the night of December 20/21st. The famous Iranian scholar, Al-Biruni (973 – 1050 AD) has recalled Yalda as the night when sun was born. Iranians have celebrated Yalda for thousands of years and today, most of the traditions of this ceremony is still preserved by Iranians. Yalda is also celebrated in parts of Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The longest night of the year was the reason for friends and families to gather around in houses, stay awake until well past midnight and spend the darkest night of the year together. In ancient Iran, darkness was a symbol of devil. Zoroastrians thought of Yalda to be ominous. In fact, the gathering for Yalda was intended to protect people from devil during the longest night of the year. Friends and family members would gather in one place, stay awake and share the remaining fruits from the summer. The day after Yalda, which is the first day of Winter, was historically the actual day of celebration. Starting from the day after Yalda Night, which is known as “Khoram Ruz” (joyful day), the days will start to get longer and longer and soon, in 90 days, the Persian New Year, Nowruz, is to be celebrated.
Today, most of the traditions of Yalda are still seen in the night’s gatherings. In most cases, family members gather in the grandparents’ house. Various fresh and dried Fruits, nuts and maybe ash (thick soup) are prepared for the ceremony, with pomegranate and watermelon being the imperatives of the table. The tasty, red pomegranates are the symbol of glow, joy and birth.
Traditionally, family members would sit around the Korsi (a low table with a heater underneath used in Winter), put a big tray full of dried nuts and fruits on the table and enjoy them while talking and reading poems. Korsi may not be found in many Iranian houses these days, but the beauty of family members and friends sitting together in a warm and cozy house while talking and reading Hafez poems can still be observed in many families.
If you are traveling in Iran during the Yalda night, make sure you are spending the night with your Iranian friends. There are some public gatherings for the night of Yalda across the country, however, I believe what can make this night unforgettable is to spend it with an Iranian family.
There are traditions and customs shared all across the country. Traditions that almost all Yalda ceremonies have in common are family and friends gatherings, staying up until late night, eating specific kinds of nuts and fruits, reading Persian poems and fortune telling with them and last but not least, listening to stories and experiences of grandparents. We have a detailed article about Yalda Night on our blog. However, in this article, we will take you through the region-specific Yalda traditions around different provinces of Iran.
Sistan Va Baluchestan
Family plays an important role in Sistan va Baluchestan region. Most of the times, gatherings take place in the house of the family’s oldest member. The host would welcome the guests with a tasty edible powder called “Satu” (roasted barley powder with sugar), syrup and nuts. Another sweet made in this region for Yalda is known as “Dushab”, which is a mixture of the highest quality date of the season with ghee.
Many family celebrations are held on this night. Usually, a music performance by local instruments makes the night even more rejoiceful.
The local medlars are abundant in Gilan and also play an important role in celebrating Yalda. Other local fruits like oranges, pears and lemons are also part of the Yalda table in this region. Like every other Yalda celebration, watermelon along with pomegranate are the most important things on the table. There is an ongoing belief that whoever eats watermelon on Yalda night will not get cold in the coming winter. As part of the Yalda’s fortune-telling tradition, Gilanis also use watermelons to tell the future! Other common edibles of Yalda night in Guilan are Ash-e Shir (Milk Ash), beetroot and Halva (a kind of dessert).
If a wedding has taken place in the year before Yalda, it is customary for the groom’s family to take a big tray of presents for the bride. All the fruits and specialties that are used to celebrate Yalda are placed in the tray with a big fresh Caspian white fish (an abundant species in the Caspian Sea) which is decorated with vegetables. Locals believe that this present will bring health and blessing to the couple’s life.
In older times, people of this region used to carry a torch with themselves when going to someone else’s house. That is why many people recall Yalda night as the Light Night. In this night, the bride and groom would be taken to public hammams separately. In this tradition, both bride and groom would be washed in the hammam and their feet and hands would be dyed with Henna (it was usual for Iranian hammams to have someone whose profession was to wash other people’s bodies, their names were “Dallak”. Nowadays, you may still find them in rural villages of the country). The tradition of dyeing feet and hands for bride and groom has deep roots in Iranian culture and is known as “Hanna Bandān”.
Another tradition of Yalda in Khorasan is “Kaf Zani”. The roots of a local tree called “Chubak” are put in water and boiled for some time. Then, youngers would stir the pot until some white foam is formed. The foam is later mixed with sugar syrup and is served to the guests attending the ceremony.
The beauty of Yalda in this region starts right after the sunset when young people would go on the neighbors’ rooftops and start singing the “Shov-e Avval-e Qāreh” song, where they would hang a scarf from the rooftop of the neighbor’s house, asking them for treats. As noted, there is a specific song for this act which translates to “O people of this house! upon God’s will, this household will be blessed and the elderly in your house won’t die. Give some treats to this little boy/girl”.
Another related Yalda custom in Luristan region is called “Ghashogh Zani”. In this tradition, people would usually cover their head and face with fabrics like chadors and walk to neighbors’ house while hitting a spoon to a pan, asking for treats. This is sometimes referred to as the Persian ancestor of Trick-or-treat in Halloween and traditionally, used to the prominent tradition of Chaharshanbe Suri (the celebration of last Wednesday before Persian New Year).
All sorts of local nuts such as wheat, hemp, sesame and walnuts are abundant on every table in this night.
In Kurdistan, a small local melon is put in vinegar a month before the ceremony in order to be eaten as a sweet-and-sour dessert on Yalda night. The main dish in this region is usually different kinds of Dolmeh (Dolma) made with vine leaf, eggplants or cabbage. Other famous edibles of Yalda are grapes, which are attached to strings in dark and cold rooms weeks before Yalda in order to preserve their quality for the ceremony.
One of the beautiful traditions of locals on this night is the act of giving away food to neighbors or families in need, which is known as “Kaseh Havesa”. Local games are also an inseparable part of Yalda in this region. The tradition of taking big trays of nuts and fruits to the bride’s house is also practiced in Kurdistan.
East and West Azerbaijan
Watermelon is probably the most iconic fruit of Yalda night in Azerbaijan. People of this region strongly believe that eating watermelons on Yalda night will help them survive in cold winters. Everyone would usually gather in the eldest member of the family’s house. The oldest person in the house is also responsible for cutting the watermelon while saying “we are now cutting all the calamities”. The day after Yalda, watermelon rinds are thrown in any river or stream for a blessing. The importance of watermelon in this region doesn’t stop here. Another tradition which is more common in East Azerbaijan is decorating an entire watermelon and taking it to the bride’s house in a handmade tablecloth. Other tasty edibles of Yalda in Azerbaijan are Ash-e shir (milk aash), beetroot and Halva (a kind of dessert).
In Tabriz, street musicians are known as “Ashiq” walk around neighborhoods while singing, playing music, telling legends and stories. In Azerbaijan, Yalda is usually the time of the year where locals practice the habit of taking life easier in the following year.
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