The ancient Persian custom marking the winter solstice lives on in diaspora communities around the world, including in summery New Zealand.
In a few days’ time, my family and friends will gather to celebrate Shab-eh Yalda (the longest night), an Iranian festival that predates Islam by more than a thousand years. It is so old it possibly also predates Zoroastrian, the Iranian religion from the 5th century BCE that continues to exist in Iran, India, and North America.
In the northern hemisphere, Yalda is the last night of autumn and the start of 90 days of winter before the Iranian new year, No’Rooz (“new day”, the first day of spring). Historically, Yalda was considered an inauspicious time, and staying awake all night was meant to protect people from Ahriman, the evil spirit. So, family and friends would gather indoors, eat the last remaining summer fruits, and try to fight sleep.
As in most cultural celebrations, food plays a central role in Yalda. It is part of the symbolism of the night, and there are several fruits and nuts that are always eaten. First and foremost is pomegranate, which symbolises the cycle of life. Some families, including mine (to my chagrin), sprinkle a bit of ground angelica over the pomegranate upon serving. Persian cooking is based on a balance between so-called “cold” and “warm” food. Pomegranate is considered a “cold” fruit, and thus you need angelica (“warm”) to balance the dish. Watermelon, which symbolises health and well-being, is another must. Yalda is also about making a point of eating summer fruit right as the winter begins (to protect you from the cold, of course). Persimmon and medlar, an ancient fruit that tastes like apple butter with hints of cinnamon and vanilla, are also commonly consumed. The red colour of these fruits is essential: it symbolises the crimson hues of dawn and the glow of life. Another must for the night are the dried fruits, seeds, and nuts – the combination is called ajil in Persian, and together they signify wealth and prosperity.
Finally, sweets, of course. Iranians, without exaggeration, have the biggest sweet tooths (teeth?) in the world, and no event can be done “properly” without heaps of sweets. The traditional one for Yalda is baslogh, a soft, starch-based candy infused with rosewater, ground cardamom, saffron, pistachios, slivered almonds, and dried rose petals, but no Yalda feast is complete without mounds of other sweets and pastries as well.
The part of Yalda that I resisted as a child, and is now similarly resisted by my own children, is the poetry reading. The most popular choice is the 14th century poet Hafez, whose mystical, lyric poetry my seventh-grade Farsi (Persian) education cannot even start to comprehend. But even I can tell the English translation does not do the original justice:
Even if our world is turned upside down and blown over by the wind,
If you are doubtless, you won’t lose a thing.
O Hafez, if it is union with the Beloved that you seek,
Be the dust at the Wise One’s door and speak!
Hafez’s poems are often deceptively complex, open to a range of interpretations that transcend the apparent simplicity of his verse. Like most educated people in Persian-speaking countries, my father and my older siblings could recite Hafez’s poems by heart and use them as everyday proverbs.
Iran has a rich tradition of lyric poets, including Saadi, Rumi and Omar Khayyam. (The last is perhaps the best-known Persian poet in the West. Interestingly, in Iran, however, Khayyam is more often identified for his scientific works than his literature.) And, of course, there’s Ferdowsi, the 10th century poet who authored Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), one of the world’s longest epic poems created by a single poet and the national epic of Greater Iran.
However, years ago, my mixed-descent friends and family came to our own version of poetry reading for Yalda. Instead of focusing on the traditional poets, we write our own political, social, feminist, random, nonsense rhyming poems, though some still insist on bringing more serious poems from other sources. We all love to eat, so serving all kinds of food from every part of the world, combined with the traditional Yalda essentials – which in our group includes a copious amount of wine and spirits – gives the poetry of the night a different meaning. In our various levels of inebriation, we find more meaning, more weight, and more humour in our poems. One-upmanship is undoubtedly part of our tradition.
The longest night in the northern hemisphere is either December 20 or 21. And each year, depending on everyone’s Christmas holiday plans, we celebrate Yalda in New Orleans, California or New Zealand (where it’s instead the longest day on Yalda). Last year, of course, our celebration was held virtually. Instead of sitting together around a table, we watched each other eat and drink in our little Zoom boxes on our screens, this time trying to outdo each other from across the globe.
The sharing of poetry, whether the Divān of Hafez or my family’s original poems, defines Shab-ehYalda for me: it is a ritual that can be sublime without the heavy burden of compliance. It’s a tradition as old as Iran, but it also feels modern and fresh, transcending barriers that certain religious customs sometimes impose. I always like to compare Yalda to the US tradition of Thanksgiving: a day spent with family and friends eating and experiencing a shared event like watching a football game or going for a long walk. Yalda, too, is an all-inclusive, welcoming holiday that connects the past to the present and, I hope, through my daughters and my friends’ children, to the future.
I try to imagine the people 2000 years ago hovering around a fire in their small mud huts, trying to keep warm while eating fruits from the summer harvest, hoping to survive Ahriman so they can see the sunrise. And then, centuries later, other people gathering for a more festive night, reading Persian poets who had helped preserve the language after the so-called 200 years of silence, when Arabic was the sole language of the Persian court and the intelligentsia. While Yalda is a deeply rooted custom, it has nevertheless lost some of its splendour for the youngest generation in Iran. But now, with our own kind of vigilance, the Iranian diaspora is attempting to preserve this simple yet beautiful tradition – at least, our version of it.
Mahyar Amouzegar is provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of New Orleans and a writer. His latest novel is The Hubris of an Empty Hand.