Light in the Longest Night

Winter Solstice commemoration


Light in the Longest Night
by Davood-Rahni

The captivating audience from all walks of life and backgrounds, that was nearly 2,000 in number, nonetheless, felt as if they were many folds much larger representing every corner of the global village, were stunned when the saxophone soprano Paul Winter was succeeded by the overwhelming sound of the organ at the Cathedral of St. John’s the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue, adjourning the Columbia University in upper Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood. Paul was metamorphed on the stage as Lucifer blowing his horn to herald the rebirth of the sun to humanity. Was it not so ironically perplexing that the Christianity which had struggled for four hundred years after its inception to make the European pagans quit the habit of observing their grandest annual celebration, the winter solstice, by presumably trans-locating the birth of the Jesus from March to December thereby masking the pagan ritual, to now proudly host and extravagantly sponsor the commemorative celebration of the winter solstice for the past three decades?!

My family, accompanying a lifelong fried musicologist and composition maestro, and another dear IT executive friend, enjoyed the nearly two hours of the concert, Winter Solstice, with much nostalgic exhilarations. Every performance genre was uniquely mesmerizing, especially the dance ensemble choreographed by Abdel R. Salaam, and the rise of the sun after the longest night of the year, a somewhat deliberately lengthy prose that combined the music, lyrics, sound and light special effects, and induced the audience into a trance for retrospection of the year passed and introspective contemplation of what the new year may bring. As reverberated through the existing thankful spectators, most would recommend the participation and support of such events to friends and families alike.

It is believed that even before the advent of the myriad religions as Mithraism, Manichaeism, Mazdakism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism which had preceded three Abrahamic religions, that most people in the prehistoric world had independently revered and or worshipped the sun, later transformed into a religion, the Sol Invictus.

Yalda, the celebration of winter solstice, has been continuously observed throughout Southwest Asia, Iran and its dozen surrounding nations, for nearly ten thousand years. The Syriac Aramaic word Yalda, literally means (re-)birth and has been used to denote the longest night of the year for the sun’s rebirth. It is also a common given name to girls in Iran. Most Germanic and Scandinavian people use a derivation of the same word , God Yule, or God Jul, first as a means of congratulating the most important pagan celebration of winter solstice, and later adopted for expressing Christmas best wishes.

Winter solstice that usually falls on December 21 has been celebrated by human communities throughout the world for millennia. Many of the oldest civilizations have evolved between the Indus and Ganji rivers to the east, and Tigris, Euphrates and Nile rivers to the west, where current Iran falls in the center; there the celebration has been called Yalda ( aka Daygan) since antiquity. The word means (re-)birth of the Sun. There are other derivations of the same Syriac (Aramaic) word adopted in the Indo-European Persian language, such as Tavallod and Milad that are synonymous, meaning birth. Yalda puts behind the longest “pregnant” night of the year, and daylight, with birth of the new sun, begins to become longer again (the triumph of light over darkness). It is also called “Shabe Chelleh”, meaning the first night of a twenty day period before another revered Persian celebration, Jashne Sadeh. The latter is one hundred days before the grandest Persian commemoration, Norouz, or the Persian New Year. Yalda was adopted from the Babylonians and incorporated into Zoroastrianism by Persians.

The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (God of Agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (Sun God) are amongst the best known observances of winter solstice in the West, and as commemorated by European pagans. The Romans, especially the aristocracy celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the Persian Goddess of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year. In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday as the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday, which was thought to have occurred in spring. Pope Julius I, however, chose December 25 for the birth of Jesus in order to supersede the pagan Saturnalia or Mithra’s festival. Mithra (Mehr) is responsible for protecting “the light of dawn called Havangah.” The day after Yalda, known as "khoram rooz" or "khore rooz" (the day of sun) belongs to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom.

One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order. The king dressed in white would change place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned who ruled with disorder and chaos as they believed order came of chaos, and masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. Following the Persian tradition, the usual order of the year was suspended. Grudges and quarrels forgotten, wars would be interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts and schools were closed. Rich and poor became equal, masters served slaves, and children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, merriment of all kind prevailed. A mock king, the Lord of Misrule, was crowned. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.

The Iranian Jews, who are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country, in addition to "Shab-e Cheleh", also celebrate the festival of "Illanout" (tree festival) at around the same time. Their celebration of Illanout is very similar to Shab-e Cheleh festival. Candles are lit; assorted varieties of dried and fresh winter fruits (pomegranates, watermelon, meddlers, and persimmons) will have to be consumed, special meals are prepared and spiritual prayers recited.

JASHNE SADEH: The Hundredth Day Celebration

Jashne Sadeh is a mid-winter celebration, commemorated since antiquity in IRAN, then Persia to non-Iranians, that falls twenty days after Yalda, the winter solstice. The figure Sad-eh, 100, actually coincides with 100 days before the arrival of Norouz, i.e., the vernal equinox. Norouz is the grandest Persian New Year celebration that has, along with the three other seasonal festivities, been observed by all peoples in the large territory spanning from central Asia to western India, and into the western Fertile Crescent and the Caucasus including the current country of Iran, for the past millennia. Sadeh reverberates with the exhilarating terrestrial message of light and warmth, by leaving the frost and cold behind (the triumph of light over darkness). A version of the Sadeh celebration in Yazd, according to Fasli Calendar, is called Hiromba.

In Sassanid Dynasty era (7th century C.E.), huge bonfires were set up at Sadeh. Mobad, the Zoroastrian Priest led the prayers of those congregating around the sacred fire “Atashe Niyayesh” and performed the spiritual rituals before it was lit at sunset, generally outdoor near the temple and along a pristine stream. The fire was also meant to drive off the demons of frost and cold, which could otherwise turn water into stone (ice), and kill the plant roots beneath the earth. Traditionally girls (boys after 1979 in Iran!) would go door to door asking for firewood. Knocking on doors they would chant poetic verses like "If you give firewood, God will grant your wish, and if you don't, He won't either!" People would dance around the bonfire. Wine, a then luxurious intoxicating elixir, was served communally. The most elaborate report of the celebration comes from the 10th century during the reign of Mardavij Zeyari, the ruler of Isfahan. A major suburb of this City is still called Sadeh! During the three days of Sadeh celebrations, huge bonfires were set up along the Zayandeh Roud, while hundreds of doves carrying lit fireballs were released to light up the dark sky at night. There were fireworks, clowns, dances, music and storytelling, with lavish feasts of roasted lamb, beef, chicken kabobs and other delicacies served to participants as well as to the needy in the city.

In modern Iran, many people have reverted to show particular awareness to historical celebrations. This is manifested in their major pre-Islamic heritage, commemorating Norouz (spring equinox) and Chaharshaenbeh Souri (bon fire jumping) preceding it, as well as Tirgan (summer solstice), Mehregan(autumnal equinox), Yalda and of course Sadeh as many people worldwide cherish these special seasonal events.

Citations: Massoume Price ( & D. N. Rahni (


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