Shab-e Yalda, the annual celebration of the winter solstice which took place on December 21, is celebrated widely in Iran, as well as in nearby countries, like Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.
The Iranians originally adopted the festival thousands of year ago, from ancient Babylonia, and made it a part of Zoroastrianism, which was the dominant religion in Iran at the time. Even later, following Islam’s rise, Shab-e Yalda remained an important Iranian custom.
Shab-e Yalda, which marks the longest night of the year, was a celebration of the fact that subsequent days would begin to grow longer, and nights shorter, symbolizing the victory of light over darkness. In most ancient cultures, daylight and the sun were seen as manifestations and signs of God, whereas darkness represented evil.
One of the pre-Islamic, Shab-e Yalda traditions, which persisted until the Sassanid period in Iran, was the temporary subversion of order. Roles were reversed between masters and servants. A king dressed in white would change places with ordinary people, and a mock king would be crowned and paraded in the streets. This tradition allowed for disorder and chaos to rule for a day, until order was restored.
Because of its incorporation into Zoroastrianism, Shab-e Yalda was influenced by the traditions of the faith. Zoroastrianism acknowledges the existence of moral dualism in the universe. These dualistic components are Spenta Mainyu (progressive mentality) and Angra Mainyu (evil or regressive mentality). The concept of the devil ‘Ahriman,’ who was the personification of Angra Mainyu, was introduced later in Zoroastrianism’s evolution.
On the eve of Yalda, it was believed the forces of Ahriman were at their peak. Traditionally, fires would be burnt throughout the night, in order to defeat these evil forces. Prayers would be offered to Zoroastrian deities, ensuring the victory of the sun, which was essential for the protection of winter crops. People would gather together with family and friends, and stay awake the whole night, in order to ward off these evil forces.
Shab-e Yalda was also incorporated into the Mithra tradition, which has its origins in ancient Indo-Iranian mythology. According to this tradition, Shab-e Yalda was the eve of the birth of Mithra, the Sun God who symbolizes light, goodness, and strength on earth.
Shab-e Yalda is, in essence, a celebration of optimism and hope. As Payam Nabarz wrote in ‘The Mysteries of Mithras,’ “after Shab-e Yalda a transformation takes place- the waiting is over, light shines and goodness prevails.”