Farewell to fall, salute to snow: Yalda and the advent of winter in Iran

December 18, 2011
The traveller may stop anytime but the road never really ends. If it does, then perhaps it was not a road in the first place, but a dead-end. 

From the fragile window of hope, nothing in life ever really comes to an end and the end of something is always the beginning of something else. Everything is in constant evolution, swaying from being to un-being, flickering from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ and then, lingering at the borders of ‘maybe’ and ‘I don’t know’ until a new cycle of certainty begins all over again. Perhaps, this is the core meaning of wholeness and completeness, because truth has a paradoxical nature and this quality is indeed one of its many attractive features. 
Perhaps the only human shape that gives us a real sense of completeness is the circle; the ever resplendent sun in the drawings of children, the full blue harvest moon in all its ripeness and the happy round face of the clock that persistently tells us the time. The circle is deemed as a symbol of fullness, possibly because it has a perpetual and never-ending shape. No one could point out where a circle actually begins or ends. And how deliciously ironical it is, that a shape with no beginning and no end, can actually endow us with the sense and sound of completeness!
Like the circle, the cycles of nature and the wheel of fortune perpetually turn or so we assume. The death of one season marks the birth of another, where the sea assumedly ends, the sky begins to extend the newest shades of blue in its horizons and when the paws of the dark touch the faintest borders of light, the first hues of the dawn are born.  In human life, some endings are often mourned and most beginnings are nearly always celebrated. 
Of all ancient Persian rituals, it is mainly two festivals that are unanimously celebrated by Iranians today, Yalda Night (the birth of a new sun) and the Persian New Year (Norouz, the birth of a new day). Wherever in the world they are, Iranians somehow feel committed and relate to these festivities. 

Yalda is also known as Shab-e-Chelleh (literally meaning, the night of the forty). In Iranian culture and literature 3, 7 and 40 are significant recurrent numbers in case of days of celebration and mourning. The word ‘chelleh neshini literally meaning, sitting the forty) refers to the ritual carried out by dervishes (Persian hermits) who meditate and pray away from public life for forty days. Also ‘chelleh taabestaan’ (forty of summer) or ‘chelleh zemestaan’ (forty of winter)  are expressions that indicate intense heat and intense cold as the first forty days after the beginning of summer and winter are considered the hardest to bear. 
The number forty, in a way, represents a threshold into ease and comfort after the initial challenge. In Old Iranian calendar, winter is divided into parts, chelleh bozorg (the big forty) from 22nd of December to 30th of January and chelleh koochak (the little forty) from 30th January to 10th of March. Therefore, the night-of –the-chelleh celebration (21st December) is actually a ritualistic welcome of the first forty days of winter and the cold as well as the rebirth of a new winter sun (a new circle of hope) on what is considered the darkest and longest night of the year. 
But we, as ever oblivious mortals, must remember that there was a world long before there were any maps or calendars. The story of Yalda, if anything, is the tale of courage and endurance during darkness, a celebration of light and human warmth and perhaps a realization that after all, it is also the dark, that makes the light so beautiful and it is the winter of our minds that makes the spring in our hearts possible. 

As the Persian poet, Sa’adi of 12th century says:
In despair there lies but a hint of hope
The end of a pitch black night is white

Let us celebrate the advent of winter and create warm memories for the tabula rasa of snow, so when the spring sun eventually melts the cold away, we have some green stories to share with the earth. 

Yalda night, a starry Persian epilogue to autumn

The last eve of autumn and the beginning of winter is a ceremonious and auspicious night for Iranians. Known as the longest and darkest night of the year, December 21st is celebrated in the memory of the victory of light over darkness. ‘Yalda’ (in Syriac, a dialect of old Aramaic language, means ‘birth’) marks the birth of winter and the triumph of the sun as the days grow longer and colder.

In ancient Persian legends, khorshid (Persian word for sun) was a beautiful woman, with wide, large black and luminous eyes and maah (Persian word for moon) who happens to be passionately in love with her, searches for her in the sepehr (Persian word for skies) day and night. The stories of Mehr (Old Persian word for sun, also sun deity) and Maah are a part of Old Iranian folklore culture. 
The festival is also known as ‘shab-e-chelleh’ (the night of the chelleh, meaning forty) which refers to the forty days of winter that are supposedly the coldest and initially hardest to bear. Some scholars, however, differentiate between Yalda and Chelleh based on their historical origins. 
Dated as old as 70 centuries ago, Yalda is one of the most important festivals of ancient Iran and it is still celebrated to this day. Although it is not an official holiday, the festival is widely celebrated across the country and television and radio have special programs for this night.  Chelleh neshini (sitting for chelleh) is a social occasion when families and friends gather usually at the house of an elder (grandparents, aunts or uncles) to rejoice in warmth of one another’s company as naneh sarma (Cold Ma, a character in Persian folklore who brings in the cold of winter) begins to descend on earth. Ajil (a mixture of dry fruits, seeds and nuts) and fresh winter fruits are served to the guests. The dry fruits are somehow a reminiscence of the abundance of summer and the fresh fruits are an invocation for food during winter. Watermelon and pomegranates (symbol of bounty) are the traditional fresh fruits of this night. It is believed that eating watermelon before the advent of winter can immunize one to cold and illness. The red color and the fleshy texture are also reminiscent of sunrise and the birth of the first day of winter. Cooked pumpkin is also another winter treat on Yalda night. In fact, all dishes represent health, prosperity and joy. Fruits and kernels full of seeds also bring to the mind a sense of productivity and fertility as the dearth of winter approaches.
All food items are arranged on a spread known as sofreh (traditional table cloth available in various materials and patterns), usually by women of the house. After a fresh and hot dinner, people stay awake usually most of the night while they recite poetry, narrate stories, sing, play musical instruments or just chat in the coziness of their homes and among their loved ones. They also make phone calls to friends and close ones or send text messages to congratulate them on this night. 
Another beautiful and meaningful tradition is Faal-e-Hafez (bibliomancy by using the book of poems by Hafez). Usually, the eldest member of the family who is also literate will open a random page of the poems after all the guests have stated a niyat (literally meaning, intention or wish) in their hearts. He or she will then read out that random poem and they will find their answers in their own interpretation of that particular poem.
As the longest night of the year, Yalda is also deemed as a symbol of separation from the beloved, a period of anticipation and longing after which comes the day and the dawn of hope. Sometimes it also stands as a symbol of the beloved’s hair (long and dark) in Persian literature.  It is also believed that people’s wishes are granted on this day.

Regional welcome of winter

Though Yalda night is almost unanimously celebrated across the country, regional variations of this ritual are also interesting. In all places, generally people celebrate by eating pomegranate and watermelon. 
People of Azerbaijan (northwestern Iran) believe eating watermelon will not let the cold of winter into their bones.  Also, on this night, new brides carry gifts to brides-to-be of the family. These gifts are decorated with watermelon and a large red scarf covering it. Red is an auspicious color among the Azari people. In Ardabil, people ask the chelleh bozorg (first forty days of winter) to promise them to be moderate as they wish for a good winter time. 

In Shiraz (southwestern Iran), families spread a sofreh (Persian table cloth, mostly spread on the floor) which is not very different from the Persian New Year spread. They normally place a mirror and an artistic depiction of Imam Ali, the first Imam of Shiites on the spread. In addition to typical Yalda food items, Halva Shekari (a kind of paste made of sugar, butter and sesame seeds) and Ranginak (Persian date cakes) are also served. It is customary for people of Shiraz to cook Havij Polo (carrot rice dish served with beef) or Koofteh Sabzi (a dish of large stuffed meatballs) on this night.
In Gilan (northern Iran), however, Yalda is never complete without watermelons. It is assumed that anyone who eats watermelons on this day would not be thirsty in summer and cold in winter. 
Aoknous is a tempting and indispensible Gilani dish on Yalda night. Kanous (a Gilaki word for Medlar fruit) is left to soak in a clay jar filled with salt and water for a month. It is then served on Yalda night and also during the Persian New Year festivities along with a pinch of salt and a dash of golpar (Persian hogweed) or as the Gilani people call it, green salt. The night is also memorable for young couples. The groom’s family usually sends a big decorated fish along with other gifts and Yalda fruits to their daughter-in-law and both families and invited guests link this long autumn night to the dawn of new beginnings and happiness. 

In Tabriz, local musicians known as ‘Aashigh’ play traditional instruments and sing songs from ancient Persian legends on Yalda. Aashighs are local artists who play a great role in preserving oral culture and they can recite poetry spontaneously. 
People in Kerman, however, stay up most part of the night to welcome the arrival of the legendary Gharoun (Croesus) who is believed to bring wood for poor families in the disguise of a woodcutter. The wood logs would then turn into gold and bring prosperity and luck to the house. The ritual is of course a symbolic one.
One of the oldest Yalda rituals in Lorestan Province was when a group of small and teenage boys would go to the rooftops of houses and throw down their bags tied to the end of a long scarf from the chimney holes. They would sing songs, wishing prosperity and happiness for the owner who would fill their bag with Yalda treats. The children would state their gratitude accordingly by singing songs of merriment. 
In the city of Khoy, Azarbaijan Province, people give out gifts of Pashmak (a form of Persian candy floss made out of sugar and sesame seeds) because, it is believed, they somehow resemble snow. 
Also in the villages of Khorasan Province (northeastern Iran) the groom’s family sends out gifs with a group of musical instrument players to the bride-to-be’s house. In one of the villages of Garmsar, people of one family or clan get together over a meal of khorous polo (cockcrow meat and rice dish), after which they chitchat with jokes, anecdotes and short stories.  In Khorasan, after dinner and festivities, people read out verses from the Shahnameh, a long epic poem written in Persian (997 A.D).
In Kermanshah Province, people stay up most of the night by eating, singing and telling stories to abide with the mother of the world in giving birth to her daughter, the sun.

Good Eats 
Persian Ajil, a rich winter treat

Ajil is actually a mixture of nuts and dried fruits which differs according to combination and taste. It has long become one of the symbols of Iranian culture as it is found in many Iranian social and cultural rituals like Yalda and the Persian New Year, Norouz. 

Ajil can be classified on the basis of the purpose it serves, like Ajil-e-Eyd (Norouz Ajil) or the Yalda Ajil. Other types of Ajil are categorized based on the basis of flavor or type of ingredients, like Ajil-e-Shoor (savory), Ajil-e-Shirin (sweet) and Chahaar Maghz (four kernels). There are many regional variations of the mixture but the main consisting elements are pistachio, hazelnut, almond, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, red seeds, peanuts, cashew nuts, black and green raisins, noghl (a confection of sugar coated roasted almonds), roasted chickpeas and macadamia. Additional elements include dried figs, dried peach, walnuts, dried apricots and prunes, and sometimes dried plumes, dried black cherry and also dried dates.
It can even be found in religious ceremonies, particularly hosted by women in Iran. Known as Ajil-e-Moshkel Gosha (literally, opening-the-lock-of-problems Ajil) and handed out in small green parcels, it is believed that eating a few items of the mixture will grant their wishes and prayers. Preparation of this Ajil is a ritual in itself and it differs from region to region. In Tehran, it mainly includes raisins, chickpeas, pistachio, almonds, dried figs and dates, dried peach, senjed (the dried fruit of oleaster tree) and sometimes, coconut shreds, dried apricots, black raisins and nabaat (saffron crystal sugar lumps). All elements are combined on a spread while prayers are chanted. The Ajil is then parceled into handfuls and distributed like a nazr (religious vow and food offering).
On Yalda Night, however, families and friends gather in the cozy ambiance of their homes to share and enjoy the rich bounty of nature at the brink of winter with a handful of the colorful Ajil in beautiful Persian bowls.

Facts

1- Yalda or Chelleh Night is celebrated on the last day of Azar (the last month of autumn season in Iran) and before the first day of the first month of winter, Dey (which according to some findings happens to be the name of a light deity in Old Persian). 
2- Persian watermelon is the most prominent feature of Yalda Night and the fruit is shaped and served either simply on a platter or very elaborately cut and decorated in various shapes and sizes. Also, a few days before Yalda, watermelon and pomegranate prices may soar.
3- Yalda, though not common, is also a female Persian name. 
4- Yalda Night this year may be a low key ritual because of the month of Muharram which follows the Islamic Lunar calendar and happens to fall in December. During this month, Shiites commemorate the death anniversary of Imam Hossein and his 72 loyal companions who were martyred in the battle of Karbala. Iranian mourning and festive rituals are an amalgamation of national and religious heritages.
5- Yalda is also an introduction to winter as much as it is a farewell to autumn. This year, however, Iran experienced an early snow and rain fall (early November) in some parts of the country.
6- Iran experiences white winter in many parts each year but it is never freezing in all regions. Iran is popular as the ‘land of four seasons’. While it snows in the Northern provinces like Gilan and Mazandaran, people can swim and enjoy spring like weather in the South, particularly in the beautiful Island of Kish which becomes an attractive tourist destination, particularly early winter.  
7- When snow descends people make snowmen across the country and some go to ski resorts. Notable ski resorts include Aaab Ali, Darbandsar, Dizin, Mount Damavand, Pooladkaf Ski Resort, Sepidan Ski Resort, Shemshak and Tochal.
8- Taking aerial tramways and cable cars (known as telecabin) over snow covered mountains and valleys are another winter attraction for people. One of the most famous sites is the Tochal Telecabin in Tehran. With 7.5 km, Tochal has one of the world longest cable car's lines. Namakabrood telecabin in Mazandaran province and Lahijan telecabin in Gilan province are other popular sites.

Bizarre Buzz!
Ski resort near an Iranian desert!

Most people assume Kerman Province, southeast Iran to be a hot, arid area devoid of any vegetation. While this may be partly true, the lush green villages and their surrounding beautiful natural scenery exist to prove otherwise. 
Interestingly Sirach village of Kerman displays an extreme instance of this natural contrast. Although the village is situated near the desert it surprisingly has a winter ski resort. The hot and arid climate of the desert is in complete contrast with the cool mountain air of Sirach. This amazing disparity in the climate is a major tourist attraction.
Residents of the village are predominantly farmers and cattle herders. Their gardens are dense with fig, vine, pomegranate, sweet and sour cherry trees. Also, warm mineral springs for the purpose of hydrotherapy welcome many tourists annually. High quality vegetable oil, dried fruits and small hand-woven rugs and mats are among the souvenirs of Sirach.