It’s almost a week to the winter solstice or Yalda in Persian and the city already evokes excitement. Fruit shops are showing off their best watermelons and raving about their Pomegranates brought from Saveh, where it’s known for the best pomegranates of the country. Confectionaries are full of customers waiting in line to pay for their bags of dried nuts. Cafes serve coffee and tea with cakes and cookies decorated like watermelons and pomegranate seeds are the hot topping of every dessert. Spirits are high and it’s almost like a mini-Nowruz is on its way.
Traditions of Yalda vary from province to province. Every Iranian ethnic group has added their own sparkle to it. But generally, it’s an excuse for us to gather with our loved ones and eat! Because whether we’re mourning or celebrating, eating is an inseparable part of our culture. If you haven’t noticed that already. 😉
This year my Yalda was full-on! Because as much as you try to keep your traditions alive when living abroad, celebrating them at home is something else. We didn’t even wait for the night to arrive. All of us found an excuse to skip work and head to my grandmas for lunch and help her with the big feast before everyone else arrived at night.
As soon as our stomachs were full and our sacred Persian nap was fulfilled, preparations for dinner began. We were given huge bowls and a load of pomegranates to deseed and my mum and aunt were busy decorating the watermelon delicately.
Before we know it, it was pitch dark. Everyone had managed to find their way home through the drastic traffic worsened by the party night. We chatted, heard of long-lived tales and above all, read Hafez.
The life of a Persian is deeply routed with poetry. But it’s our lovely Hafez who steals the spotlight of most of our big celebrations. On the night of Yalda, the process goes specifically like this: We make a wish, pray for the soul of Hafez to rest in peace and open a random page of Divan-e Hafez from which he will reveal events of our future.
Since we were little kids it was always my grandpa who would open the Hafez and read it to us. Since he’s not among us anymore we used his version of Hafez in his memory. As I made a wish my uncle opened a page and started reciting the poem. He even managed to find a relation between the poem and my lust for travel while my cousins were insisting on finding features of my future husband in it. Me? Rolling my eyes instead!… However, Hafez seemed to think a glass of wine is all I need and before we know it we were off to my next cousin trying to find what her expecting baby’s name is going to be. As you can predict, we don’t take things very seriously here! It’s more of an excuse to feast our ears to his wise words and probably just giggle. 😉
The background story of Yalda
The word Yalda meaning birth was imported to the Persian language from Syriac-speaking Christians. Yalda is one of the oldest Persian traditions still celebrated. On the night of Yalda, ancient Persians would celebrate the birth of Mithra, the goddess of light. Considering it was the longest night of the year, they believed that evil forces were at their strongest and therefore gathered to stay awake the dark night with each other’s company. Dried nuts, pomegranates and watermelons kept from the summer were served. It was believed that eating watermelons would ensure their health during the summer months and protect them from diseases produced by hot humors. Later the older individuals would recite Hafez and entertain everyone with their mysterious tales.
Further reading may be done here.
So what if you’re engaged!?
Among many traditions and customs added to Yalda through the centuries, this is one which is practised by many in the recent years. Engaged men are supposed to buy fruits and nuts coupled with gifts (mostly winter clothing) which they would bring for their fiancé on the night of Yalda. Usually, the family of the groom-to-be would also join him in visiting the family of their future bride. Sometimes the family of the bride returns the favour by also giving gifts to the groom.
The traditions and culture of celebrating the winter solstice is not in any way possible to be squeezed in one post. But perhaps next year when all your Iranian friends are getting overly excited about the arrival of winter, you’d already know what the fuss is all about. 😉
Happy Yalda! May your winter be short, your hearts be warm and your happiness forever-lasting like the winter solstice. 🙂