Tonight is Yalda (Winter Solstice.) I am back in first grade sitting around the Korsee* with my brothers and Madar joon: my great-grandmother picking sweets off the table. Mom is off to bring tea. I suppose this is one of the few times we are allowed to have all the sweets we want. My feet are under the blanket and I love the heat of the coal burner against them.
“Madar joon tell us a story.” I say.
“Yes, Madar joon. Please.” repeats my little brother.
“What do you want to hear naneh?”
Now the three of us sit quietly as she, in her soft voice, starts the story.
It is the tale of a prince who has two brothers. When their father is ready to choose a substitute he gives the boys a task. “There is a ghoul who steals apples from my favorite apple tree in the garden. Whoever can stop the ghoul becomes the next king.” The boys take turns guarding the tree. His brothers fall asleep under the tree. When his turn comes, he cuts his finger and pours salt on it to stay awake until the ghoul comes. When it tries to take the apples the prince takes out his sword and cuts off the ghoul’s arm. Then follows his trail to a well, climbs in the well and finds a beautiful garden with three houses. In each house one ghoul is resting its head on a girl’s legs….He goes on to save the girls, who turned out to be princesses, and becomes king.
However, the origins of Yalda, I learned after coming to the U.S.
Yalda means birth. Some believe that the celebration signified the birth of Christ. In the Zoroastrian tradition it also was used to celebrate Mitra, the goddess of light. In Zoroastrianism, Iran’s religion before Islam, darkness equaled evil (Ahriman), so people stayed up throughout this longest night of the year with fires, and candles to ward off evil and welcome the sun prevailing the next day (with days starting to lengthen). Festivals and celebrations ensued along with prayers to the Gods for what people really wanted because on that day they believed their prayers would be answered. Also, accepting that chaos preceded order they celebrated this first day of creation by reversing roles such that kings acted as normal people and a fake king was crowned. In the end order returned.
Today, Iranian families gather together, tell stories, read poetry (mainly Hafez), eat fruits, nuts, and sweets. The food they set out also has meaning. Nuts are said to bring prosperity, pomegranate and watermelon (cooling foods) act as a reminder of summer and halva (sweet) for the winter.
What I love, though, is the similarities I discovered amongst different cultures. The Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun by decorating palm trees, Romans celebrated Sol Invictus (the invincible sun) by exchanging gifts, and decorating their homes with greenery, Iranian Jews celebrated Illanout (tree festivals), Russians had something similar, with bonfires and sweet breads.
In a way we all welcome and celebrate light, whether it is Christ or the Sun.
I wish you all a wonderful Winter Solstice.
And now I am off to buy nuts and dried fruits. Here’s to delicious taste and prosperity.
*A low set square table, covered with a blanket that extends on all sides of the table, A charcoal fire, covered with ashes, prepared in a fire resistant container sits under the table. We would sit around the table, where the food was set, and pulled the blanket over our feet.