Celebrating Yalda, the Zoroastrian Winter Solstice!

First off, if you wish to learn about Yalda, especially from a Zoroastrian perspective, please read my article written for the WZO here. It will help fill you in on the meanings, misconceptions, histories, theologies, and methods of celebration for this fantastic holiday.

I really encourage all of you, my fellow Zoroastrians, to celebrate Yalda Night/Chelleh Eve (on the 21st of December in 2022 in the northern hemisphere and tomorrow by the writing of this article) in whatever way you can even if you just spend it being gregarious with your household or just online in video calls. I am part of an initiative amongst Zoroastrians working to make it our distinct December festival of celebration, feasting, and gift-giving as the Christians have Christmas and the Jewish community has Hannukah. This way, we can join in the celebrations of our neighbors without forsaking our own and truly bringing some joy to these Winter days! I won’t discourage you from celebrating the various grand Winter festivals of other faiths, but why not be a proud Zoroastrian and give Yalda Night/Chelleh Eve a try this year and those following? I’m sure your kids and other small family members, if you have them, will love it and they’ll have something to tell their friends of other faiths about!

If you can be public about it, please do so, though I understand that there are those who can’t because of political or family circumstances. Please, on social media, post photos of your celebration, feasts, music, art, and be sure to give gifts to your loved ones, neighbors, and friends on this day even if it’s just a tasty pomegranate.

This article will help by providing some suggestions on how to best celebrate this holiday no matter where you are in the world. Now, here are seven steps and suggestions to make your Yalda celebrations a fantastic one:

  1. Prepare Your Table
    Most household Zoroastrian celebrations are usually held around a table and this is no exception. Get a table, whether your dinner table, your coffee table, an altar table, or, if you’re lucky to have one, a nice and warm Iranian corsi. Cover it in red and/or white cloths, candles, flowers, art, a portrait of Zarathushtra, and a copy of the Gathas and/or other Zoroastrian literature. I recommend also including other poetry and works of fiction from your household, works beloved by you and your loved ones. A fun thing to do is to ask guests to bring their own books to read from and share with their fellow guests. I recommend the Shahnameh, the grand epic of Iran packed full of our Zoroastrian mythologies, and acting out scenes together if possible!
  2. Decorate!
    The purpose of Yalda is to banish the darkness and thoughts of sadness, misery, and all wretchedness. As such, you’ll want to decorate your household to reflect this! You can’t go wrong with candles and other fires, flowers, decorative fruits, brightly-colored banners & streamers, and all sorts of pretty lights. Perhaps light some incense or nice-smelling candles, get fun little party hats and/or garlands for guests to wear, and, of course, dress up for the occasion. Sometimes the best decor is the one you bring wearing on you!
  3. Gather Your Loved Ones
    Friends, family, and good neighbors are always such a blessing so bring them all over to celebrate on the longest night with you! If you’re not the cooking type, this may be a good way to organize a potluck where everyone brings their own tasty dish and beverages to share. If you do cook, be mindful of any food allergies and requests from your guests and provide alternative options for non-drinkers, non-smokers, and the like. Not everyone will want to stay up late and that’s fine but make sure there are comfortable places to sleep for those that do. No doubt you and those brave folks that last the night will want somewhere soft to rest your head after all the festivities!
  4. Play Music, Tell Stories, Pray Together, Read Poetry, and Dance!
    Ancient Zoroastrians would gather together on this night to bring in joy as much as possible. I’m not going to tell you how to do that as it’s a crucial part of our lovely human experience. However, historically, we have played music, told stories, read poetry, engaged in friendly competitions, danced the night away, and the like. In modern times, this can include watching your favorite movies together, making food as a family, playing all sorts of games whether analog or virtual, and like. A popular thing to do is to divine your fortunes for the following year by picking by opening the Gathas or another book important to you, closing your eyes, and picking a verse at random and seeing how your winter shapes up from there! The point is to maximize the joy so do that as you best see fit! Of course, don’t forget why we celebrate and try to pray together a little bit even if that prayer is just reading a section of the Gathas or a moment of silence to remember those who can’t be there to celebrate as well. It’s a joyous day but it’s also a sacred day and don’t forget that one of the guests in your celebrations is always Ahura Mazda, our greatest friend and companion, who revels in our joy.
  5. Exchange Gifts
    Almost every Zoroastrian festival in pre-modern times involved some sort of gift-giving or another and Yalda is no exception. We’re surrounded in this time by so many other gift-giving holidays, secular and religious, and we shouldn’t be remiss to celebrate our own. Have a gift ready for each of your guests attending and encourage them to bring some as well. It doesn’t have to be something grand and can be as simple as the traditional gift: A pomegranate! Who’s going to turn down something so delicious, eh? If you’re at a loss, it’s always lovely to give something homemade like crafts, baked goods, and the like. Have friends that like to read? Set up a wrapped book box where it’s a mystery as to what they’ll get and have them pick one! Be sure to include your neighbors and non-Zoroastrian family and friends so that they know what Yalda is all about and spread the word about our wonderful celebrations. Nothing says they can’t be included so bring them in and be a good host which in itself is a fantastic gift.
  6. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!
    Ask any Zoroastrian and they can tell you we love to eat! We take food seriously and we boast some amazing cuisine from our traditional cultural communities. Prepare some traditional dishes from your culture and be sure to also include many fruits like pomegranates, watermelons, citruses, apples, nuts, and the like. Last, but not least, don’t forget the juices, wines, tea (lots of tea), and tasty sweet treats! At a loss as to what to serve for desserts? I personally recommend a large amount of Sholeh Zard, an absolutely delectable saffron rice pudding, and my favorite Persian dessert. Need a recipe? Don’t worry, click here and I’ve got you covered!
  7. Stay Up As Late As You Can
    Our spiritual ancestors would party all the way until the sun, triumphant against the darkness, would blind them in the morning and then promptly sleep, so, if you have the energy and desire, try to stay up as late as you can and greet the dawn as they did. If anything, it makes for a fun competition of seeing who can stay up the latest! Perhaps have a prize ready for whomever succeeds? No doubt they’ll at least enjoy some tasty breakfast! Can’t stay up that late? Don’t worry, it may be fun to do but not all of us are cut out for it. Just enjoy your night the best you can, cuddle up to your loved ones or your favorite pillow if you’re celebrating alone, and enjoy a restful sleep and wonderful dreams when it hits you.

I hope all of that helps! Please post your celebrations on social media and share this article to encourage others to celebrate.

Happy Yalda Night/Chelleh Eve, my fellow Zoroastrians, and may it be a joyous one!