Shab-e Yaldā (Yaldā Night) is an Iranian festival which takes place on the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, usually falling on either 20 or 21 December depending on the shift of the Iranian calendar. Taking place on the longest night of the year, Yaldā translated from Farsi to English means ‘birth’ which ultimately underpins the essence of this festival. The festival dates back to ancient times when a majority of Persians were followers of Zoroastrianism. From its Zoroastrian roots, Shab-e Yaldā celebrates the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness – the winter solstice marking the lengthening of days, shortening of nights and the advancement towards Spring.
Nowadays it’s another excuse for my colourful, loud and party loving Persian family to get together. Family and friends gather together on the longest and darkest night of the year, to eat, drink and read poetry (primarily the poetry of Hafez) until the early hours of the next morning.
The traditional foods eaten on Shab-e Yaldā include watermelon, pomegranate, nuts, and dried fruit. Pomegranates and watermelons are considered significant as their color is associated with the dawn and new life. Pomegranates symbolise the cycle of life and birth and eating watermelons (a summer fruit) was thought to protect you from falling ill in the winter months. These items are commonly placed on a korsi (a low level table) which people sit around. Some serve substantial dinners before the activities begin ranging from delicious khoresh (stews) and perfectly cooked rice (chelow) and/or kababs.
The elder members of the family entertain the others by telling them jokes and anecdotes. For some Iranians (like my family) there is alcohol and/or dancing too. Another tradition is ‘Fāl-e Hafez’ – fortune telling using the Dīvān of Hafez (an anthology of Hafez’s poems). In our family an elder interprets the poem selected at random as that person’s fortune for the year to come, using a lot of innuendo and ‘tongue-in-cheek’ humour.
As I am writing this post we are heading towards the end of 2020, a year that has seen many hardships and people seeing less of their loved ones due to the global COVID pandemic. This year will be low key with a gentle introduction for my daughter and my English husband to what I hope will be a continued pre-Christmas celebration with my wider Persian family. In the spirit of this festival, I hope Shab-e Yaldā does signal the ‘victory of light over darkness’ for everyone.
Shab-e Yaldā Mobarak!