The Winter Persian Celebrations in IRAN: YALDA/DAYGAN & SADEHJanuary 11, 2021 12:36 pm Leave your thoughts
Article by Davood Rahni
People of today’s Iran and their ancestors who spread out over the western and Eurasian plateaus have celebrated four annual seasonal junctures amidst the past many millennia. Although Norouz (the Persian New Year) at spring vernal equinox has since several thousand years ago become the dominant annual celebration to herald the rejuvenation on nature, nonetheless, there still remains a winter solstice festival, in Persian still called Daygan or Yalda , i.e., the rebirth of the Sun still revered today, was the most dominant observance earlier in antiquity. There follows yet another celebration between Yalda and Norouz called Sedeh. The other two major seasonal festivals are Tirgan and Mehregan at summer solstice and at autumnal equinox, respectively. The term Persian herein only denotes the Persian language, culture and ethos.
The winter solstice celebration on or about December 22 has since antiquity been called Yalda (Daygan) in Iran (Persia). Yalda means (re-)birth of the Sun. There are other derivations of the same Syriac (Aramaic) word adopted into the [Indo-Irano-European] Persian language, such as Tavallod and Milad. Yalda is synonymous to old Pahlavi (Avestan) words, Zayeshmehr or Khorram rouz, adopted from Zoroastrianism to denote the winter solstice. Yalda puts behind the longest “pregnant” night of the year, coinciding with the anticipated arrival of the new ‘Sun’ to be born, whereby daylights begin to become longer again (the triumph of light over darkness). It is also called “Shabe Chelleh-ye kouchak,” meaning the first night of a forty day long period before another revered Persian celebration, Jashn e Sadeh (Chelleh-bozorg) arrives; the latter is Sadeh, 50 days and 50 nights (thus a hundred) before the grandest Persian commemoration Norouz, or the Persian New Year arrives on the first day of spring. The earliest Zoroastrian calendar had a proper name for each day, week or month of the year. When the same name for a month was the same as the name for a festival called Gahanbar.
The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (God of Agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (Sun God)- from which the words “Saturday” and “Sunday” are derived from, are among the best known observances of the winter solstice (Yule by the German tribes from pagan god Odin) and as commemorated by the European pagans. The Romans especially their aristocracy celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the Persian Goddess of the unconquerable Sun on 25 December. They believed that Mithra, an infant goddess, was born off 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 and so they did not observe with zeal the birth of Jesus then. It was until the late fourth century when church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a Holiday, which according to the Bethlehem nativity murals, they began observing the birth in spring. Pope Julius I, however, chose December 25 for the birth of Jesus in order to supersede the pagan sol invictus or Mithra’s festival at winter solstice. Mithra (Mehr) is responsible for protecting the light of dawn called “Havangah.” The day after Yalda known as “Khoram Rouz” or “Khor Rouz” (the day of sun) belongs to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom and enlightenment in Zoroastrianism and as earlier equally revered by Mithraism.
One of the themes of Yalda festival was the temporary subversion of ruler/ruled order. The king, dressed in white, which in a way gave him a mobbed (Zoroastrian priestly magi appearance), and by extension angelic aura-would change place with ordinary people. This seems the precursor to a character that later became commonplace including in Europe, namely, the jester in royal courts of east and the west. The mock clown king was crowned and ruled over the commoners and serfs with disorder and chaos. The common belief was order would emerge out of chaos, and thus masquerades and jubilant processions spilled into the streets. As the old Year died down, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. Following the Persian tradition, the usual order of the year was suspended. Grudges and quarrels forgotten, and, wars would be interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts and schools closed. Rich and poor became equal egalitarian style, masters served slaves, and children headed the families and placed parents under detentions! Mock cross-dressing, dancing, singing, other mischievous acts, and merriment of all kinds prevailed ubiquitously.
The mock King, aka the Lord of Misrule, remained crowned throughout the ceremony. In the lights of candles and oil lamps flickering shadows against tall walls, whilst the pungent aroma of burning Persian rue, Espand, and frankincense, Kondor, to ward off the evil spirits-the devas, deevs, djinns, gulls and goblins; the extravaganza finished off with fireworks to chase away all the spirit of darkness.
The Iranian Jews with eminent presence for millennia in Iran and amongst the most historic brethren in the country, in addition to “Shab-e Cheleh,” also celebrate the festival of “Illanout” (cypress/conifers/palm tree festival) at around the same time. Their celebration of Illanout is very similar to Shab-e Cheleh festival. As Iran has historically remained a highly rich nation.
In both concurrent celebrations, people consume assorted varieties of dried nuts and fresh fruits (pomegranates, watermelon, meddlers, quince, grapes, and persimmons) along with a heavy vegetable, legumes and noodle soup called Ash Reshteh and as they hum spiritual prayers and dance and sing around the bonfire. This practice is still followed in Iran despite government chagrin and the surrounding countries as well as in Europe especially in the Nordic Scandinavian countries.
The Hundredth festival, Jashn-e Sadeh is a mid-winter celebration, commemorated since antiquity in IRAN (aka Persia to non-Iranians through WWII), that falls forty-days after Yalda, the main winter solstice. The figure Sad-eh, 100, actually denotes 50 days & 50 nights 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 all of the Iranian Plateau, for the past millennia. Jashn e Sadeh reverberates with the exhilarating celestial message of imminent light and warmth, and by leaving the frost and cold behind (the triumph of light over darkness). A version of the Sadeh celebration in Yazd, according to Fasli (seasonal) Zoroastrian Calendar, is called Hiromba.
In Sassanid Dynasty era (7th century C.E.), huge bonfires were set up at Sadeh. Mo’bed the Zoroastrian Magi 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 frosts 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 (to light another bonfire.) 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. They also served wine, a then luxurious intoxicating elixir 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 Rood, while hundreds of doves carrying lit fireballs released to light up the dark sky at night. There were fireworks, clowns, dances, music and storytelling, with lavish feasts of roasted lamb, beef, and chicken kabobs and other delicacies, served to participants, as well as to the needy in the City.
The humans especially the Iranians and their neighbouring brethren in central-south-west Asia have over an extended period of time developed instinctive cognizance and reverence to the sun as the ultimate source of light, energy, heat, equality, enlightenment and eternality. Such pragmatic dependence to sun later led to recognition of other celestial objects and the zodiacs and astrology. From all that over many millennia emerged the divine Sun Goddess Mithraism the precursor to Zoroastrianism, and their solar calendar still used in Iran today; Mithraism gone west ushered in Sols Invictus by the Roman Empire through the fifth century; the emperor Constantine converted from Mithraism, declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 470 CE.
Hominids, the diverse species of primates have stood upright and walked on two legs in Africa from as far back as four million years ago. The last migration of humans roaming north out of Africa 100,000 years ago, led to small family clusters in central and west Asia. Archeological and genetic investigations have indicated all humans in the northern hemisphere must have originated from a single forager-gatherer-hunter roaming in the Samarkand and Bukhara region of central Asia, over 40,000 years ago.
Seasonal celebrations are reflected in a historically rich plethora of Persian mythologies comprised of vast volumes of poetry and prose as well as heart-to-heart transmittance against the backdrop of Iran’s recorded history of 10,000 years. As typified by Norouz, they are exemplified by Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the epic 30,000 verses poetry book of the Persian Kings of Peshdadian and Kayanian Dynasties written 1,000 years ago based on tales and legends of millennia earlier.
In fact, stories in the Shahnameh chronicle events in four cyclical solar and seasonal celebrations: Norouz (spring vernal equinox), the New Year epoch of the triumph of light over darkness, enlightenment, reconciliations, justice, equality, fairness, harmony, tranquility and peace. Tirgan (summer solstice), the era of transforming or eradicating forever the darkness and injustice, thereby eating the fruits and drinking the juices in the paradise of mother-earth. Mehregan (autumnal equinox), the fall harvest of bounties and preparation for harsh days ahead, giving thanks preparing for a dormant survival phase. Daygan/Yalda (winter solstice), invoked by the rebirth of the sun, and yet soon saddened by the gloomy era of injustice, tyranny, pain, pillar, plunder, famine and diseases afflicted by darkened forces.
Hominids and Homo sapiens including the ancient Persians/Iranians had instinctively recognized the most crucially pivotal role of women in the continuation and sustenance of life since the beginning of time and place. They had grasped and revered the role of bearing, fertility and productions as they all depended on the sun, moon, earth and its many bounties of flora and fauna. Therefore, it is not surprising that throughout the history of Iran and her Persian cultures, mythology and ethos that the celestial objects, earth, moon and sun among others and as expressed in Persian language and cultures have all remained female since the beginning of time. In fact, deities and goddesses, as evidenced by smaller and larger figurines and statutes and sculptures as held on in Museums such as Louvre, London or Metropolitan in NYC and as illustriously depicted in the book the Royal City of Susa, are women. Historians surmise the three Abrahamic religions, transposing the icon image of their male prophets over the sun to use it as sacred halo, transformed Persian/Indian matriarchy into patriarchy. Somewhere along the historical timeline, around five to three thousand years ago, Goddesses become Gods and then one God as believed by the three Abrahamic religions. This power transfer from female to male became the pinnacle of socio-economic, political and military power.
Hushang the second king of the Peshdadian Dynasty, amid his reign in the Stone Age when hunting alone once, is said to have serendipitously discovered the power of fire when he struck off another lint boulder when his aim was to scare off an incoming humongous venomous snake toward him! This led to keeping the fire eternally sacred in temples harnessing its light, energy, heat, cleansing, disinfecting, and deterrence effects against wild animals, and for metallurgy and material making. It also heralded the winter solstice. The evolution of thoughts, that led to the cognition of the four basic elements essential to safeguard for creating and sustaining life, namely fire (sun), water, earth, and air, followed.
Later Jamshid the just King of the Peshdadian Dynasty instituted and ushered in the jubilant Nowruz, the Persian New Year heralded on the vernal spring equinox. He was however, killed and overthrown by the despot Zah’hak at the winter that followed. As soon as Angra Mainyu (aka Ahriman, Eblis, , Sheytan, Stan, Demon, Div, Djinns) wet kissed Zah’hak’s two shoulder calves, two grotesque snakes emerged from his extremities. The snakes, repeatedly, made love to copulate over Zah’hak’s hollow skull until their feeding time at noon was upon them. They required devouring a daily dose of the fresh flesh of a young newlywed Persian couple offered at them. The premise was that if this offering was not provided before each dusk that they would begin annihilating, in bits and pieces, the tyrant Zah’hak himself so to send his soul deep down to Douzakh the hell, until he was burnt to ashes at day-time and frozen over at nights, forever.
The majority serf populace, horrified of such repeated cataclysmic episodes, had all but lost hope and the impetus to live. Then on the last Tuesday night before spring, the blacksmith Kaveh emerged with his leather apron staffed on his tall javelin called since Derafsh Kaviani. He called on all Iranians and led them up Mt. Damavand where they dug up Zah’hak hidden deeply in his dark and swampy damp dungeon and beheaded him and his two snake companions with one mighty strike of the strongest sword ever made.
Despite the pleas of his compatriots, the patriotic Kaveh was not interested in ruling Persia and so he suggested Fereydun be crowned onto the Peacock Throne as the next King of the Keyanian Dynasty. Fereydun restored justice, peace and happiness again until the end of time. And, so, the Iranians lived happily ever after! (or they so wished)
Winter solstice falls on or about 22 December. Many human communities throughout the millennia have celebrated this solstice, and as they had intuitively understood the sun as the energy and light powerhouse to drive the four basic elements of soil, air, water and fire to sustain life. Some of the oldest civilizations, which have evolved between the Indus and the Ganji Rivers to the East, Oxus and Volga Rivers to the North, and Tigris, Euphrates and the Nile Rivers to the West where today’s Iran falls in the center of this region, have commemorated the four seasonal epochs. Iranians have, especially, revered and celebrated the winter solstice and spring vernal equinox as the semi-annual zeniths of the year.
In modern Iran and in diaspora, there is a particular resurgence by many Iranians have reverted to commemorating these historical celebrations. This is manifested in reinvigorating major pre-Islamic cultural heritage, commemorating Norouz and Chaharshsenbe Suri preceding it, as well as Mehregan, Yalda, Tirgaan, Daygan, and of course, and Sadeh.
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