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The Origin of
YALDA, WINTER SOLSTICE

Ali A. Jafarey

Climate and seasons have greatly governed animal behavior since the beginning of life on this planet. Survival, search for food, storage, shelter, hibernation, migration, and many activities have depended on the change of seasons. Man (stands for male and female) is an animal and his life has all along been subject to seasonal changes. The rainy season has promised him food and also threatened him with floods; a dry season has drastically cut his food supply and sent him miles away from his home in search of food; excess heat has cut down his activities; and severe cold has forced him to seek a warm shelter.

We all know that the earth is a globe with the equator an imaginary circle cutting it in two halves. Day and night are equal along the equator but as one gets further north and south, the difference between the two gets equally greater, so much so, that it is either completely dark at the north pole and light at the south or vice versa. The angle between the "celestial' equator and the ecliptic and their intersections create the four distinct seasons divided by the equinoxes and solstices.

Again the four seasons are less distinct closer to the equator, more prominent in further north and south close to the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and the severity and the length of the cold season is felt much more near the Arctic and Antarctic circles.

Against these distances from the equator, the earth's rough and varying terrain and the distance from the oceans also play a part in introducing changes in the seasons. Therefore, there are places where there are only two seasons with varying intensities of summer and winter, and other places in which the dry and wet seasons divide the year. There are practically no spring and fall.

Man's behavior is, to an extent, shaped by the climate environment in which he lives; if a particular season brings him abundance of food, he likes it, and if another presses him hard into a corner, he has his dislike for it. It is these likes and dislikes that make men and women, social animals, to express themselves in their joy or sorrow over a particular change in season. Festivals are the collective expression of joy over the change or a turn of point in a season. The people in the region with dry and wet seasons would always welcome the rains with a festival. Those enjoying four seasons, would celebrate the beginning of every season, and those experiencing a severe heat or cold would look forward to better days as soon as they see a change in the weather. If we keep this principle in view, we can trace the origin of every seasonal festival in the world.

But here as Iranians, in fact members of the Indo-European stock, we are concerned with our own festivals: The New (Year) Day (Nowruz) or vernal equinox on or about 21 March; the first day of summer (Chelle-ye Tabestan – Summer-Forties), for summer solstice on, or about 21 June; the first day of fall (Pâyiz) or autumnal equinox, on or about 23 September; and the first day of winter (Chelle-ye Zemestan – Winter-Forties), or winter solstice, on or about 20-22 December. There are mid-spring, mid-summer, mid-fall, and mid-winter festivals of minor importance, and then there are Zoroastrian religious and social festivals which have either added to the four seasonal feasts or have advanced or delayed their dates of celebration.

The equinoxes, one heralding spring and the other autumn, were of great importance to a pastoral and agricultural people. The two events were celebrated with great pomp and rejoicing. The solstices, of less importance, did not have much festivity, particularly because living around the tropic of Cancer, did not mean severe winter nights.

But let us not forget the roots of the Iranian people in the Indo-European stock. The Indo-Europeans all lived and still some do, close to the Arctic Circle where winter meant/means less outdoor activities and confinement in settlements. Then the longest night, the winter solstice, meant the end of hard days and harder nights. It meant that the sun would begin to grow stronger and stronger. It was the time to rejoice. Therefore, the winter solstice was a great feast. The Celtic began, like many of the northern people, their year in winter-around 22 November, just a month before the Solstice. They called their New Year celebration Yuletide. The word Yule can be traced back to the Old English “geol” and other variants, most probably meaning "a wheel" with reference to the turning of the seasons. Yuletide, or wheel-time, marked the end of one turn of the "wheel” of the year and the beginning of another. The ancient Romans, far to the south, celebrated Saturnalia from 17 to 24 December, in honor of Saturn. Thus, the winter solstice was a popular festival among the Indo-Europeans.

Both the Celtic name of Yuletide and the birthday of the sun in the diverse region of the Mediterranean came under the dominating Roman influence. When Christianity replaced ancient European cults and took many of their festivals and rituals, Sun's birthday and ascendance were change into Christmas and Easter. The Celtic Yuletide now came to mean Christmas. It appears that the Semitic people of the region had a word quite close to Yuletide, “Yalda,” meaning birth in Syriac, the Christian Aramaic dialect.

The Chelle-ye-Zemestan, the winter solstice festival of the Iranians came to be called Yalda when the identical festivals met in the amalgamating Iran. Yalda, as such is a new term in Persian and among the Persian people. However, as already told, the winter solstice has ancient roots among the Iranians. It may, however, be noted that the Chelle-ye-Zemestan has not been linked by the Iranian tradition, ancient or modem, with the birth of Christ, which, as celebrated by the native Christians in Iran, who belong to the Eastern Church, falls on the 5th of January; two weeks after the solstice.

Yalda is a family celebration. Members gather around their korsi, the heater low-table covered with quilts and blankets with a brazier beneath, to have their shab-chareh (night-browsing) of water melon and other fruits preserved intact from late summer and early fall, dried fruits, light food, and a lot of stories and talks that enabled them to stay up as long as they could before going to their deep sleep under the quilts and blankets of the korsi. It was their longest but very sweetened night. Henceforth, the sun would get stronger and stronger until on Nowruz, it will be high in the sky, warm and bright.

And now for decades we have daily newspapers, radio and television in modern Iran. Their commentators have dramatized and generalized it so much so that the entire Iranian nation, knowingly and unknowingly, celebrates Yalda more as the night of the rebirth of the “Sun” than connect it with the birth of Jesus who is the “Son” of God for Christians and the Prophet of God for Muslims!

With the new zeal to revive the ancient glory sweeping among the Iranian in "diaspora', it now appears that the Chelle is making a triumphant come back under the name of Yalda to give them back their old winter solstice celebration as a rival of Christmas, its old replica, adapted and aggrandized by a dominating culture. It may well penetrate and establish itself in the homeland too. Who knows!

The Iranians have, like many other nations, finding reasons and excuses to celebrate as many joyful occasions as they can make it! Yalda is one of them. Yalda/Winter solstice 2016 in the Northern Hemisphere will be at 2:44 AM on Wednesday, December 21.

Happy Yalda to all!

Ali A. Jafarey