(usually) December 21
Creation! Before the light of creation dazzled chaos,
Love was created — that set creation on fire…
On the longest night of the year Iranians around the world celebrate Yalda. It means “rebirth”, referring to the rebirth of the sun. Today is also the first day of the month of Dey.
The history of this celebration goes back almost to the dawn of civilization itself, when the ancient Aryan tribes of the central Asian steppes worshipped the sun as the source of life.
As these tribes migrated to Persia–as well as to parts of India, Europe and the Far East–they took their traditions to a new latitude. The sun-as-benefactor was a notably different view than those held by cultures of the Arabian desert, who were bombarded with the sun’s heat and thus envisioned hell to be a place of fire and flame.
The concept of the sun god Mithra solidified in what is now Iran. Thousands of years before Christ and Mohammad, Persians worshipped Mithra and held fire in great esteem as a representation of the sun’s incarnation on earth. Many Iranians still celebrate Nooruz (the Spring equinox) by jumping over fire, a practice that caused religious leaders to arrest hundreds of participants as recently as 2001. According to scholar Esmail Nooriala:
It is not an act of worshipping fire. You make a fire from bundles of thistles and thorns, then jump over them with joy and enthusiasm. You become mixed with an element of nature, dance with its flames and absorb its kind of warmth. You do not think of an abstract God who is sitting on a thrown somewhere in Heaven and expects you to suppress your joy and behave in his ever lasting and expanding presence.
As Rome moved eastward to Persia, and as Persian soldiers were captured and brought back to Rome, a curious cultural exchange occurred. The Roman army–and with it a good segment of the Roman population–were exposed to and absorbed the ideas of Persian Mithriasm. At one point the worship of Mithra reached all the way from Spain to India, although the practices in the Roman Mithraism, such as bull-related rituals and imagery, bore little in common with the Mithraism of Persia.
Followers of Zoroaster, believed to be the first monotheistic religion, exalted Ahura Mazda as the one true divinity. Mithraism and Zoroastrianism coexisted in Persia for over a millennia, often melding and merging. It wasn’t until Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion that the Persian Empire–which had rejected the idea of a state religion for over a thousand years–sought to increase its power by institutionalizing Zoroastrianism.
During the Arab invasion from the West 1400 years ago, Islam replaced Zoroastrianism as the religion of Persia. But Persians maintained their local languages, customs and many of their traditions.
The reemergence of Yalda is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has occurred mostly in the past 25 years, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Many Iranians, both in Iran and abroad, seek to reconnect with thousands of years of tradition and history.
These traditions include the celebration of the birth of Mithra, observed on the winter solstice. Just as the darkest hour is before dawn, the sun god is reborn precisely during the year’s longest night.
On this night many Iranians gather together, enjoy nuts and fruits of the season–pomegranate chief among them–and recite the poems of great Iranian writers like Hafez…
At dusk I woke with all my cares vanished:
in that pitch black of night I drank from the water of life.
Enraptured with the glow of the inner light:
I drank of that cup of light, glorified in nature.
What a glorious morning, what a glorious night!
whether he be drunk or sober
seeks the beloved.
whether it be mosque or synagogue
is the house of love.