Winter solstice, on December 21 in the Northern Hemisphere and June 20 in the Southern Hemisphere, comprises the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. Many ancient cultures rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. For instance, Egyptians, four thousand years ago, celebrated the re-birth of the Sun at this time of the year, setting the length of their festival at twelve days to reflect the twelve divisions in their solar calendar. They decorated their homes with greenery, using palms with twelve shoots as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month (Price).
A similar Roman festival at the same time was dedicated to Sol Invictus (“the invincible Sun”), the Syrian deity of the Sun. After the Roman conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century, this night was considered as the night of Jesus’s birth. In year 350, December 25 was adopted in Rome, which coincided with winter solstice festivities. The Romans also exchanged gifts, prepared special meals, and decorated their homes with greenery (Iran Safar). “The English term Christmas (“mass on Christ’s day”) is of fairly recent origin. The earlier term Yule may have derived from the Germanic jol or the Anglo-Saxon geōl, which referred to the feast of the winter solstice” (Britannica).
In ancient Persia, the night of winter solstice came to be known as Shab-e Yalda, or Yalda Night. The word yalda is a Syriac one meaning ‘birth,’ signifying increasing daylight following the equinox. They commemorated the longest night of the year as the birth of the deity Mehr or Mithram, the Sun god.
On the last day of the Persian month Azar, the longest night of the year, the forces of Ahriman, the god of evil and darkness, are believed to be at the peak of their strength. Subsequently, the first of the month of Dey, known as khoram rooz or khore rooz (‘day of Sun’) belongs to Ahura Mazda, the god of wisdom. Some sources suggest that the English word day may have its roots in the name of this Persian month. Since daylight was increasing and nights were getting shorter, this day marked the victory of the Sun over darkness. It was an old belief that when one needed protection from evil, it was better to be together with family until sunrise, when evil would be dispelled.
Just as celebrating the first day of spring, which marked the beginning of the Persian new year (norooz) was important, observing the first day of winter held a special magnitude in Persian culture. People stayed awake during the night, exchanged gifts, and prepared festive meals in which watermelons and pomegranates were a requirement as the colours of these fruits symbolised the hues of Sunrise.
The reading of poetry played a cherished role in the celebration. “Questions about life and human nature are often expressed in Persian poetry, hence, Shabeh Yalda is spent reflecting on the transcending messages in these timeless works of art” (Saranj).
The texts on the right and left sides of the above painting are from the Persian poet Sa’di’s Gulistan, (‘Rose Garden‘), considered a landmark of Persian literature, written in 1258 CE. It is one of two major works of Sa’di (d. 1291), one of the greatest medieval Persian poets.
The texts on the top and bottom of the painting are from the poetry of Hafiz (d. 1390), another of the most celebrated Persian poets. In the last verse of the poetry in this painting, Hafiz compares the dark night of Shab-e Yalda to the dark, enchanting, and mysterious long hair of his beloved (Bita Pourvash, Aga Khan Museum).
In his Bustan (‘Orchard‘), Sa’di says:
“The true morning will not come until the Yalda Night is gone.”
April Holloway, Shab-e-Yalda – an ancient winter solstice celebration that commemorates the triumph of Mithra, Ancient Origins
Alison Eldridge, 7 Winter Solstice Celebrations From Around the World, Britannica
Lachin Rezaian, Yalda: Iranian celebration of winter solstice, Mehr News Agency
Massoume Price, Festival of Yalda, Iran Chamber Society
Parisa Saranj,Persian Traditions and the Winter Equinox, PersianEsque
Stephanie Pappas, Pagan Roots? 5 Surprising Facts About Christmas, LiveScience