Islam and Christianity
Yassamine Mather looks at the connection between various religious festivals
Shab-e Yalda, or ‘Chelle Night’ (December 20 or 21), which is celebrated in Iran, parts of Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey during the winter solstice, has a long history going back 3,000 years, when the main religion was Zoroastrianism. This celebration coincides with the transition from the ninth to the 10th month in the Iranian calendar, on the longest night of the year.
That is when the forces of Ahriman (darkness) are assumed to be at their peak, while the next day, the first day of the month of ‘Dey’, known as Khorram rūz (the ‘day of the sun’, December 22) symbolises the ‘creator’, Ahura Mazda (‘Lord of Wisdom’). Since the days are getting longer and the nights shorter, this marks the victory of the sun over darkness - and goodness over evil.
Over time, the festival has undergone changes, maintaining its cultural importance, while shedding most of its religious associations (similar to Christmas, as far as millions of people in the west are concerned). For Iranians it is a time for social gatherings. Families and friends get together to enjoy food and drink, and recite poetry written by Hafez (who lived in the 14th century and whose book of poems is found in many Iranian homes), Saadi (13th century) and Ferdossi, who wrote the epic Shahnameh (‘Persian kings’) in late 10th and early 11th century.
Some celebrations last until dawn to see off the longest night of the year. The event is marked by the consumption of fruits and nuts, while red-coloured fruits, such as pomegranates and watermelons, decorate many tables - their vibrant colour symbolising the break of dawn and, as in all Zaroastrian mythology, light against darkness, good against evil.
Historically, the origins of Chelle Night can be traced back to 502 BC, during the reign of Darius I, and it was an integral part of the ancient Iranian calendar. This tradition is deeply rooted in the ancient understanding of seasonal fluctuations and the solar cycle. The Iranian (Persian) calendar, known as the Solar Hijri and devised by Hakim Omar Khayyam, is renowned as one of the oldest and most precise calendars still in use. Although the word Hijri refers to 622 CE, when Mohammad and his followers migrated from Mecca to Yathrib (now Medina), Iran’s calendar remains rooted in the pre-Islamic era. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, it commences at the March equinox and accommodates leap years, distinguishing itself by its approach to marking the new year. Nowruz, the Persian new year, is celebrated during the March equinox and carries profound importance within this calendar system.
The name ‘Chelle’ refers to a 40-day period of winter, with Yaldā Night marking the commencement of this phase. There are three such 40-day periods within the year - two in winter and one in summer. Yaldā Night (also influenced by Syriac-speaking Christians) gets its name from the Syriac word for ‘birth’, relating it to the celebration of Christmas. Despite its Christian origins, the term ‘Yaldā’ has become synonymous with this winter solstice festival in Persian culture.
In northern Iran, where the weather is very cold in December, an essential and central part of the gathering is the korsi, a traditional Iranian piece of furniture. It is a large, low, square table, heated underneath (historically by coal, but now often by electric power), and draped with blankets. Everyone tucks their legs under the blankets for cosiness and leans against cushions arrayed around the korsi, snacking on trays laden with pomegranate clusters, bowls of their glistening seeds, and slices of crisp watermelon. As a piece of furniture the korsi has a long history in Persian culture not - just as a beloved and practical piece of furniture (especially in regions with very cold winters), but also as a symbol of warmth, hospitality and togetherness.
The name of the celebration, Yaldā, also has a Syriac origin. meaning ‘birth’. In the 3rd century CE, followers of the Mithraic religion adopted and used the term Yaldā in the context of the birth of Mithra, one of the principal deities in the Mithraic faith.
Mithraism was a mystery religion that was popular in the Roman empire from the 1st to the 4th centuries CE. The religion had various rituals and beliefs, and the birth of Mithra was a significant event in their mythology. The adoption of the term Yaldā to refer to Mithra’s birth reflects the syncretic nature of religious and cultural influences in the ancient world, where concepts and terminology from different cultures often intermingle.
We do not know the original Avestan and old-Persian term for the celebration. However, it is assumed that in Parthian-Pahlavi and Sasanian-Pahlavi (often referred to as ‘Middle Persian’) the event was known as Zāyishn (full name: Zāyīšn-i mithr - ‘birth of Mithra’). The New Persian (Farsi) term, Chelle, is relatively recent.
One of the central themes of the festival involved a temporary disruption of the established order, where masters and servants would switch roles. The king, usually adorned in white attire, would exchange places with common people. A symbolic king would be crowned, and lively masquerades would spill out into the streets. As the old year came to an end, the usual rules of everyday life would be relaxed. This tradition, in its original form, endured until the decline of the Sasanian dynasty (224-651 CE) and is documented by Persian polymath Bīruni and others in their accounts of pre-Islamic rituals and festivals.
These Iranian customs seamlessly integrated into the ancient Roman belief system through a festival venerating Saturn - the ancient deity symbolizing seed time. Among the Romans, this occasion entailed the exchange of gifts, spirited celebrations and the embellishment of residences with greenery. Much akin to the Iranian tradition, the customary order of the year was temporarily suspended. Frustrations and conflicts were set aside, and military conflicts were either brought to a halt or postponed. Enterprises, judicial proceedings and educational institutions ceased operation. The societal boundaries between the affluent and less privileged blurred, with masters assuming the roles of servants, and children taking on familial leadership responsibilities. Cross-dressing and masquerades, along with a spectrum of joyful activities, became widespread. A symbolic leader known as the ‘Lord of Misrule’ was ceremonially crowned, while the brilliance of candles and lamps dispelled the shadows of darkness.
Furthermore, during the same period, another closely related Roman festival was observed, dedicated to Sol Invictus (‘Invincible Sun’) - a cult originally hailing from ancient Iran and associated with the god, Mithra. This Iranian-based cult was introduced to the Roman world by Emperor Elagabalus, who reigned from 218 to 222 CE, and was declared the state deity.
As Christianity spread, the celebration of Christmas emerged as a very significant festival. During the 3rd century, Christmas was celebrated on various dates, ranging from December to April. January 6 was particularly favoured, because it was believed to be Jesus’s baptismal day (in the Greek Orthodox Church, this continues to be the day for Christmas celebrations). In the year 350, December 25 was officially adopted in Rome and gradually gained acceptance across the Christian church. This date coincided with the winter solstice and the pagan festivals of Sol Invicta and Saturnalia. Many of the rituals and customs from these pre-Christian festivities were incorporated into those of Christmas and continue to be observed to this day.
Iranian Jews, who are among the country’s most long-standing residents, observe not only Shab-e Yalda, but also the festival of Illanout (‘tree festival’) around the same time. And Illanout celebrations closely resemble those of Shab-e Yalda. During this festival, candles are kindled, and an array of both dried and fresh winter fruits are served. Special meals are meticulously prepared, and prayers are offered. Similar festivities are also found in various regions of southern Russia, albeit with local variations. These celebrations feature sweetbreads shaped like humans and animals, the construction of bonfires, and dances reminiscent of crop harvesting. Conducting comparisons and in-depth studies of these various celebrations undoubtedly promises to illuminate the forgotten facets of this remarkable and ancient festival, where joy and merriment served as its central theme.
This incorporation of pre-Christian rituals and traditions became an integral part of Christmas. The term Yalda found its way back into Iran’s lexicon through Christian refugees residing in the Sasanian empire. These refugees played a role in reintroducing and popularising the term. However, following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the religious significance of these ancient festivals waned, transforming them into more like social occasions.