Yalda Night or Chelle Night is one of the oldest Iranian festivals. The festival celebrates the longest night of the year, which coincides with the winter solstice. In this article, we discuss how and why Iranian people celebrate this night. Next time you’re applying for Iran visa, you can plan to be in Iran on a happy Yalda Night.
On Yalda Night, Iranian families usually serve fine dinners as well as all kinds of fruit – most commonly, watermelons and pomegranates. In addition to serving snacks, Shahnameh reading, family storytelling by the elders, and divination with Hafiz Divan are also common.
Yalda refers to the time between the sunset of Azar 30th (December 21st, the last day of autumn) and the sunrise of December 22nd (the first day of winter).
“Yalda” comes from a Syriac word meaning “to give birth”. Al-Biruni refers to this celebration as “the greatest birth”. By that, he simply meant “the birth of the sun”.
The word “Chelle” means “the fortieth”. While “Yalda” comes from Syriac, “Chelle” has its roots in Persian (Farsi). Chelle refers to the first forty days of winter, also known as “the big Chelle”. The Iranian call the following twenty days that come after this one “the small Chelle.”
There is another Chelle in Iranian traditions. This one celebrates the longest day of the year, which is the first day of Summer. Nowadays, it’s an almost forgotten tradition, but some people still celebrate it, especially in Southern Khorasan.
“Yalda Night“, one of the sacred nights in ancient Iran, was officially introduced into the ancient Iranian calendar in the year 502 BC by Darius I. The feasts and celebrations that take place on this night are among the ancient traditions.
The people of ancient times, for whom agriculture formed the basis of their lives and culture, enjoyed the change of seasons throughout the year. They were able to plan their work and life according to the changing of seasons and the length of days. To them, the direction of the stars and all that moved in the sky were what Google calendar is to us today.
They observed that in some days and seasons the days were very long and, as a result, they could use more sunlight in those days. They believed that the light symbolized God and the darkness stood for evil. People of ancient times, including Aryan tribes, found that the shortest days are the last days of autumn and that the first night of winter is the longest. They noticed that the days gradually get longer and the nights get shorter after that very long night. So, they called it the Birth of the Sun, which marked the beginning of the year for them. It is interesting to know that Christmas has also its roots in this belief.
In ancient Avestan culture, the year began with the cold season, and in Avestan, the word “Sareda” or “cold”, which is somehow equal to the concept of “year”, promises the victory of the good over the devil and the light over the darkness.
Because darkness represented evil, the ancient Iranian people believed that in the darkest night of the year the devilish darkness grows. So this night was haunting for the Iranians. They set fire to destroy and escape the darkness. Thus, they gathered together and spent the night with their loved ones and friends. They ate, drank, danced, and chatted. Also, they brought whatever fresh fruit they had kept and dried and put them on the table.
They called the Yalda Night table “Myazd”. On Myazd, they also put nuts, which in Zoroastrian tradition, is called “lork”. Around the table, they also prayed and had some religious rituals.
Iranian people spend a happy Yalda Night. What they wear is colorful, with green and red colors dominant in their clothes. However, nothing violating the Iran dress code happens on Yalda. The family members and other relatives gather together in the houses of the elders of the family to the party. They bring food and fruit as the ancient did, and stay up deep into the night.
Watermelon and pomegranate are the popular fruit when it comes to celebrating Yalda Night. The reason why these are popular is their red color, which represents the color of the sun. That’s also the reason why the red color is dominant in what they wear. But of course, people put other fruit on the tables too and Yalda fruit is not limited to these two.
On Yalda Night, Iranians serve their traditional food. So fast food is a no-no on Yalda. In different cities, people prefer to serve their local food. That’s no wonder if you get Mirzaghasemi and fish in the northern cities, Gheyme Nesar in Qazvin, kebabs in Lorestan and Azerbaijan, and Ghorme Sabzi almost everywhere. Iranian kebabs are also very common on Yalda Night.
Nuts are very popular on Yalda. In the past, people used to keep nuts and dried fruit such as dried apricots, dates, prunes, figs, and apples, because keeping dried fruit and nuts was easy for them (they didn’t have fridges!). That has passed through history and nowadays people continue to eat them on Yalda to keep with the ancient traditions. Plus, they are very good snacks to serve at parties.
Hafez holds a high place in Iranian thought and culture specially those ones that refers to Iranian language. His poems are full of hope and practical life advice leading to a happy life. A central theme in Hafez’s poetry is the ultimate victory of good over evil. This is also what Yalda is all about. So, reading Hafez is an inseparable part of Yalda. Divination with Hafez, which promises hope and good things to come, is a part of what the elders do for each member of the family along with the prayers.
“Korsi” is a big table that has a central warming mechanism. A big, thick blanket is on Korsi, which makes it a cozy place to sit around and put your feet underneath. Nowadays, in many houses, Korsi plays the role of Myazd on Yalda Night. You might encounter Korsi if you go around the country with tailor-made tours Iran in winter.
Elders hold a central place in almost all Iranian traditions. Their houses welcome the members of the family on Yalda. Grandparents enthusiastically wait to see their grandchildren and give them gifts on this night. In addition to reading Hafez for family members, they tell ancient stories for them. These stories are mainly read from Shahnameh, and their central theme is the victory of good over evil.
Giving gifts to your fiancé on Yalda Night goes far back in Iranian traditions. In the past, it was common in many cities that the boy gave a gift to the girl so that he could spend the night with her at her family’s. Of that tradition, only giving gifts to your beloved has remained unchanged.
People celebrate Yalda slightly differently in each part of Iran. For example, In Azerbaijan, the groom’s family sends gifts to the bride’s house. In the north, they take a big fish to the bride’s family. In Kurdistan, people serve Dolmeh and Sangak on Yalda. It is very common to send watermelons as gifts for the people you love or, particularly, for the bride’s family. The whole ritual of partying with your family members and visiting your elders ties all these together. You can get detailed information from Iran travel guides specific to each part of Iran.
As far as mentioned in the last paragraphs, Yalda is one of the most important ancient festivals for Iranians. Whereas it has not been forgotten for many years and people want it lasts for their next generation as one of the symbols of ancient Persia, it was officially added to Iran’s List of National Treasures in a special ceremony in 2008.
Other Iranian winter celebrations are also common in Iran. Azargan is a prominent one among them. On Azar 9th, when the numbers of the day and the month are the same, Iranians used to hold festivals across the country. They lit a fire in their houses and on the roofs and gathered together to have family parties very similar to Yalda.
Yalda is celebrated in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The rituals are almost the same and all of them come from the rich history of the great Persia. In Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, they call it Chillai Kalan, which means the big Chelle.
When you travel to Iran next time, you can plan to spend Yalda Night with Iranian people. Their amazing hospitality and the overall festive mood of the night will remain as one of your memorable travel stories.