Dive into the Culture & Traditions of Iran
From kids playing with other kids to the young men and women, and grandparents, we were enjoying the Yalda night festival as Iranian traditions brought us together. Sipping on fresh pomegranate juice and eating Persian delights, I’ve never had before in my life was indescribable. The rising laughter was coming out from everywhere. So I closed my eyes to memorize this sweet image. That night was shinier than other nights.
Details You Need to Know to Plan Your Trip
Yalda night or Shab-e chelleh is held by Iranian people on the longest night of the year in different parts of Iran. Yalda night date is on December 21. It’s on the last night of fall, which is the Persian winter solstice. In the cold nights of winter, this traditional festival makes people’s hearts warm by gathering them together.
- Kind: Traditional Iranian festival
- Location: All over Iran
- Dates: 21 December
History of the Festival Through Ancient Stories
History of the Yalda night festival belongs to many years ago. Some archeologists believe it comes from 7000 years ago, the prehistoric period. At least we know the official Yalda night festival was held in 500 B.C. in the Darius era.
People in ancient times knew darkness as a symbol of evil and the light as a symbol of Mithra, Zoroastrian goddess of light. As a result, longer represents God’s victory, and longer nights are signs of evil’s victory. Iranian knew that after Persian winter solstice nights become shorter. The longest night of the year, Yalda night finishes with the light’s triumph and Mithra’s birth. So they celebrated Mithra’s birth and light’s triumph over the darkness of evil every year together.
It was an old belief that when one needs protection from evil, it’s better to be together. After the sun rises, the light shines, and goodness wins.
Imagine Darius the great, is Iran emperor, and you are a guest at his Persian royal palace during his monarchy. It’s believed the goddess of light is born tonight. Therefore, the people gather together around the fire at the center of their city. The emperor is hosting you with a great party in honor of Mithra, the goddess of light. In the corner of this royal palace, a group of the musician is playing Persian traditional musical instruments.
Meanwhile, a bunch of dancers with colorful dresses are waving in harmony with the music and the audience is listening to the heavenly Tar. Happiness reflects in their eyes. As people are enjoying and dancing, handmaids are preparing the dinner. Even fire is dancing in the crystal chandelier. A delicate fragrance lingers in the air.
It’s almost midnight. But the Yalda celebration has not drawn to its end. You, together with the people, are going out of the town to the foothills to watch the sunrise. People are waiting for the sun to spread its wings across the sky one more time. They want to pray until Mithra defeats Evil and the light wins over the darkness. As the chant mounted, you can see the shimmering rays over the mountains. It seems the sun with the golden spears is fighting with the darkness Evil and each ray is a wound on the Evil’s body. The morning is coming with a musical silence. The chants are becoming like lullabies. So it’s difficult to keep yourself awake.
For a long time, the Yalda night festival was taken place in ancient Iran, and gradually it became one of the traditional Persian festivals. But in different periods, it changed. Some parts of the Yalda celebration were not common before. For instance, reading Hafez poems has been common many years after establishing the Yalda celebration.
Iranians keep the Yalda night festival alive, to connect heart to heart to each other. Moreover, they want to remember that even the longest and darkest nights will come to an end by the light of love and community.
Culture and Ambience of This Festival
Just a few hours after shab-e chelleh evening, elders’ houses are full of life, and children and grandchildren come to their kind grandparents’ house. In Iranian culture, nothing is more important than family. They try to spend this long and cold winter night together with joy and peace.
Like any other grandmother in the world, she has prepared lots of delicious foods and snacks for this long night. It seems all grandmas enjoy to see their beloved children eat their cuisine. The air is filled with the smell of freshly baked cookies.
She spooned out shiny red jewels of pomegranates. But everyone knows that the Yalda table isn’t complete without red and juicy watermelon.
Youngers entertain others. Sunflower seed and mix of various dried nuts (in Farsi: Ajil) have many fans, between both children and adults. They tell stories and memories as they are eating Ajil.
When all the family is filled with joy, someone reads Hafez’s poems. They called it “Fal”. If you have a particular intent in your mind, you wish and open one of the Hafez poems. It seems the interpretation of the poem is guiding you based on your intent. Hafez poems are somehow double-edged and ambiguous. So Iranian believe that Hafez poems tell the fortunes. Usually, the reader is the elder one and everyone listens to the poem eagerly. In some families, music follows the poems. In other words, Hafez poems and Iranian traditional music are inseparable. Sometimes the melody is nostalgic. So everybody murmurs music.
More Magical Stories from Previous Participants of the Festival
It was the first time that I spent shab-e chelleh in a small village. One of my relatives recently got married. It is one of the Iranian traditions in Yalda night festival to give a gift to the new bride. So that night the groom’s family wants to bring some gifts called ‘Khonche’ to the new bride’s house.
A few hours had passed from the night that gradually guests arrived.
Pomegranates, watermelons, and other Yalda fruits were prepared before. There were plenty of sweets on a big plate. And of course, the kids who were looking for a time to steal them. The smell of fresh tea filled the living room. Everything was prepared for the precious guests.
A far echo was wrapping in the alley. A group of people was singing a local song. The sound was getting clear, and I could understand some parts of it. They were singing songs for light to shine on the days ahead of the couple.
They arrived with several large trays. Meanwhile, the women were applauding, and a local man was playing a traditional hornpipe. I could see that joyful music encourages people to dance.
On one tray, there were bowls of different nuts. On another, there were decorated fruits. Few fabrics were on another tray. Every other tray has something for the new bride.
It was a new aspect of the Yalda night festival that I’ve never seen before. We celebrated that night together and had a night full of laughter and joy.
every fall, I can smell the joy of Yalda from a few days before. I love meeting my relatives and having a night full of joy and laughter together. It reminds me of the sweet old days. Those days I was a kid, and Yalda night meant that I could play with my cousins as much as I wanted.
My grandpa buys fruits and sweets for Yalda night a couple of days earlier, especially watermelon and pomegranate. Even thinking about those sweet and sour fruits makes my mouth water.
In the Yalda night, everybody comes to grandparents’ house. My relatives, who have not met each other for a long time, are talking happily. Every few people sit on the floor and talk about a common topic. Kids are playing somewhere. Above all, my grandparents’ eyes are glowing.
My grandma likes “Korsi”, an Iranian traditional heater with a low table. So in Yalda night always we sit around it and pull up the blanket of Korsi over ourselves. My grandpa wants to read Hafez’s poems.
“Well done O messenger, bring a message from my friend
Willingly I’ll give my own life for the sake of my friend.”
Grandpa is reading my Fal (Hafez interpretation of my wish). “who’s this lucky friend?” my uncle says. Others laugh. My 10-years old cousin insists to have a Fal.
I sink into my thoughts. How delightful these moments are for me. Many kind hearts inside a warm house. I love this frame, all my sweetest and most precious persons next to each other.
What Makes this Festival Special and Unique?
- Getting in touch with traditional Iranian festivals by participating in this gathering.
- Listening and enjoying Hafez poems, one of the most famous Persian poets.
- Tasting delicious Persian foods and Yalda night special snacks.
- The opportunity of communication with local communities in a traditional ceremonial family gathering on Yalda night.
Why Do We Care?
Keeping traditional Iranian festivals alive
Introducing Yalda night festival to the world and attracting foreign travelers to this festival.
Creating a unique experience for travelers
Experiencing an immersive journey through interacting with locals and experiencing the joy of having a night full of laughter and song.
Changing Iran’s global image
Promoting Iran’s attractive festivals and places so the worldwide audiences get to know that Iran is different from the mainstream media portrayal of this country.
Why Take a Tour?
- Location: Yalda night festival is an indoor gathering. Therefore, you would need to have personal connections to the locals to be able to participate. We choose the best hosts to maximize your joy.
- Guide: A local guide can improve travelers’ experience. He/she knows the local culture, language, and history. Yalda night can’t be completed without Hafez’s poems. Your guide can translate the poems. Furthermore, she/he helps you to experience this night like a local.
- Etiquette: most of the time, the Yalda celebration is held in elders’ houses. Therefore, travelers need to learn the dress code, the traditions, and the culture of the Iranian people. It helps you to participate responsibly in the festival with the most respectful behavior to the local community. We will have conversations and discussions around Iranian etiquettes beforehand.