Shabe Yalda: The longest night of the year

Blog contributor: Sayed, NaTakallam Persian tutor

Shabe Yalda; a night of welcoming. A night of love, light and rebirth of the sun. The night of Hafez and Bidel (Persian poets) and lovers in the hope of a bright sunrise and longer days to come.

Shabe Yalda (شب یلدا‎), or the Night of Yalda, is the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, also known as the winter solstice. It is also one of the most important ancient Persian traditions which is still celebrated today, on 20-21st of December

This night marks the longest and darkest night of the year, and in return celebrates the “rebirth of the sun” as the daylight would get longer – also coinciding with “Khurram ruz” (the day of the sun). This has been an important winter festival among rural people, based on agriculture and animal husbandry. The celebration of Shabe Yalda is also called “Shabe Chelleh” (شب چله‎), the night of the forty, because it is believed that the first forty days of winter are the coldest and toughest to bear.

In the Persian calendar*, this night refers to the time between sunset from 30th Azar (the last day of autumn and the 9th month of the Persian calendar) to sunrise on the 1st of Dey (the first day of winter, and the 10th month) – equivalent to 20th/21st of December.

*Fun fact: Did you know the Persian calendar is based on astronomical observations and is considered one of the closest to a perfect calendar according to this and this source? (The months are also aligned with the star signs!)

The word “Yalda” (یلدا‎) comes from the Syriac word, meaning “birth”. It is in fact thought that the ancient Persians (of Zoroastrian faith) adopted the annual ‘renewal of the Sun’ celebrations from the Babylonians and ancient Egyptians. Thereafter, the Persian Yalda festival and rituals reportedly entered ancient Rome as the “Saturnalia” celebration – where they honored the agricultural god, Saturn. For a full week, all social norms were reverted (the rich and the poor became equal, and masters served slaves) and gifts were exchanged.

Today, many friends and families from Iranian, Afghan, Tajik, Kurdish and Azeri communities come together to celebrate Shabe Yalda. Friends gather in groups or relatives usually at the home of grandparents or the elderly to spend the whole night waiting for the sun to rise. They pass the longest night with legends, stories and riddles, quoting the Shahnameh (the epic Book of Kings by Ferdowsi, and the longest poem ever written by a single author), reciting poems from Divan-e Hafez*, playing instruments, singing, having fresh fruits such as watermelon, persimmon and pomegranate, and “ajil”, آجیل, (a colorful mix of dried fruits, nuts and seeds).

*Reciting poems from Divan-e Hafez is a special tradition on this night. Each member, in turn, makes a secret wish or poses a secret question (in their heart), and opens a random page in the book, in which the elder member of the family, or best reciter/interpreter, reads the selected poem out loud. It is believed that the randomly selected poem is a response, guidance or direction to the secret wish or question. It is fun to guess the secret wishes of others when in groups, as well!

According to an old belief, the sun, with its sunrise, will break the back of darkness, and with its radiance, it will remove darkness from people’s lives. 

As Persians say… Shabe Yalda mobarak, شب یلدا مبارک – Happy Yalda Night!

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This piece was contributed by Sayed, our Persian Language Partner, based in Indonesia.

Sayed Mohammad Nabi was born in Afghanistan right after the Soviet withdrawal but has lived as a refugee in Iran and currently resides in Indonesia. He studied French language and literature at Kabul University and has a background in translation and interpretation. In his free time, he enjoys poetry, photography, and hiking. He’s been working with NaTakallam since the beginning of 2020.

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