Yalda, a ceremony held on the first night of winter and the longest night of the year, has ancient origins which can be dated back to almost ten thousand years and is accompanied by a ritual. It is related to the concept of “Mehr.” Yalda night marks the birth of Mehr (aka the sun), the foundation of faith and belief in the Iranian calendar and thoughts about their religion. According to ancient Iranians, the sun was invincible on this night. In their view, the brightness of the day and the sun’s radiance symbolize goodness, while darkness and night, as well as cold, are associated with the acts of the devil. They observed that during certain seasons, days became longer and nights shorter, gradually forming the belief that light and darkness are in a constant struggle, with the sun and darkness prevailing at different times.
Throughout the year, ancient people realized that the shortest day is the 30th day of Azar (a persian month), marking the end of autumn. This event happens in the month of Azar, and from then on, the days become longer, bringing light and warmth to nature. Ancient Aryans believed that the sun was victorious in the battle on this night and would rule for several months. The Germans also celebrated the birth of the sun at the beginning of winter, attributing the month to the god of the sun. According to Abu Rayhan Biruni, they called the first day of the month of Dey (a persian month) “Khurruz” or “Khorram Ruz” in the book “Mas’udi’s Meadows,” and some other sources referred to it as “Khurram Ruz.”
Since Yalda night is longer than the night of the year, ancient people considered it a night filled with darkness beyond the usual. In the fourth chapter of the book “Biruni’s Proof,” it is mentioned about Yalda:
“Yalda is the first night of winter and the last night of autumn. The first night is in Sagittarius, and the last night is in Capricorn. This night is the longest night, while some say that this night is very ominous and unlucky, and others say that the eleventh night of Yalda is serious.”
However, on these nights, people stood against this darkness to neutralize its demonic power. They lit fires to dispel the darkness from their lives, gathered around these fires, and told stories to each other to stay awake. They brought all the fresh fruits from the market to this feast, and Yalda night became a sacred and religious table for them. They defended themselves from the god of the sun and sought his approval to endure the harsh winter.
What does Chelleh night mean?
Today, Yalda night is also called “Chelleh night” or “Chelleh Be Khoor”, meaning the beginning. This is because the autumn is divided to two fourty days called the big and the small Chelleh or fourty days, The big Chelleh starting from the first of Dey and finished tenth day of Bahman. From the tenth day of Bahman to the twentieth of Esfand, the severity of cold decreases and is called the small Chelleh. Interestingly, ancient Iranians celebrated the first day of Dey and called it “Khurruz” (the day of the sun) or “Khorram Ruz.” As Abu Rayhan Biruni mentioned in the book “Attar al-Baqiyya,” the first day of the month is called “Khurruz,” and this day and month are named after the great god (Khodai). The word “Dey” is derived from the Avestan words “Dazva” or “Dathush,” meaning creator and giver, respectively. Also, the celebration of the first day of Dey is because it is ninety days away from Nowruz (the Persian new year). Therefore, it can be concluded that there is a strong connection between Yalda night and the day of Khordad (or the days of Deyan).
The Birth of Christ and Yalda Night
Another interesting point to note is the celebration of the birth of Mithras and the unbreakable celebration of Mithras’ birthday (December 21) in Europe and Rome. With the spread of this ritual, the celebration of the birth of Christ (December 25) became established. If you were born in the fourth century, you would have celebrated the birth of Christ on January 6. However, due to a series of misunderstandings, the celebration of Christ’s birth was moved to December 25. Until then, the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ was held on January 6. After the development of Christianity, replacing the Mithraic religion in Rome and Europe, church authorities were unable to organize the Mithraic celebration and adopted it on the same day for the celebration of Christ’s birth.
It is worth noting that in Old English, Gēola (‘Yule’) referred to the period corresponding to December and January, which was eventually equated with Christian Christmas. Isn’t it interesting that in Swedish people still call it “Jul dag” which resembles the name “Yalda”?
Yalda is a Syriac word (meaning birth) from the Aramaic dialects that were prevalent in the Middle East from the fourth to the eighth centuries AD, and Assyrian Christians brought the word Yalda from Iran. Many customs of Christian New Year celebrations (staying awake all night, eating and drinking fruits) are borrowed from this ritual. It is related to Mehr.
Yalda Night’s table
Yalda Night is called spreading the table; the table consists of fresh fruits, nuts, and dried fruits, part of the celebration and feast, and is dedicated in honor of Mehr (aka Mithra). Mehr and the sun pass over the table. Today, this image has changed significantly due to the traditions and cultures mentioned earlier at the beginning of the discussion. Our Nowroozi Haft-seen table has also undergone these changes, and it is evident that these changes are due to the flow of history.
Yalda and New Year
In ancient Avestan culture, the year began with the cold season. In the Avesta, the word “sardeh” refers to the concept of the year, which is the same as the modern word “sard” (cold), and the reason for celebrating the New Year on this day is the victory of Mehr and the sun over darkness. Initially, in this way, the beginning of the Dey month was the beginning of winter.
Sun Prayers on Yalda Night
In ancient times, many prayers were recited on this night. One of them is called the “Mehr Prayer.” A part of this prayer is as follows:
“For the satisfaction of Ahura Mazda, we praise and glorify Him with the most beautiful prayers and praises, triumphantly. Mehr Yazad – the Yazad of the sun – the judge of the last day, with a thousand ears and ten thousand eyes, the lord of vast fields.
We praise Mehr Yazad, and we glorify him. He is the god of wisdom, who in the womb of the earth is the lord of vast fields, whose vast and green pastures are comforting and soothing.
Praise and glorification are specific to the Lord God, the guardian of the righteous, and his deeds are many. The wise old man, tall and strong. He who, with a thousand eyes, is always awake and sleepless, sees the farthest. He covers the country like a golden gem, the keeper of treaties, everywhere inside the country, beyond the country, with ups and downs.
We glorify Mehr, my creator, the incomparable and great god, the creator of the moon, the sun, the stars, and the green branches. The lord of all countries.
We praise God Almighty with all our might. We praise him for the religion of God, which has green hands. He protects and preserves the lands of Aryan. We glorify the Mehr of the charming god who never falls into the trap of deception. We pray for the blessings of Ahura Mazda, freedom and livelihood, deliverance from judgment, justice, victory, purity, and piety to be fully bestowed upon us.”
This prayer reflects the devotion and reverence of ancient Iranians for the sun and the god of Mehr, seeking blessings and divine favor for a prosperous life.