“Sight of you each morning is a new year. Any night of your departure is the night of yalda.”
-13th Century Persian Poet Sa’adi.
For one night each year, we Persians have held on to a 7000-year-old tradition of waiting for the birth of light. On the eve of December 21st, we celebrate the northern hemisphere’s longest night of the year or Shab-e Yalda. Yalda, meaning birth, comes from the Syriac language. In the ancient religion of Mithraism, there was Mithra, the god of light and truth. She was born with the victory of luminous light over the black darkness at dawn hailing the arrival of longer days and shorter nights.
Since the arrival of Islam all of its religious importance is no longer recognized, but like many other Persian holidays, it is a time for feasting, family, and friends. Staying awake to ensure the triumph of light over darkness can leave your body and soul hungry for some substantial sustenance. For the soul, a practice developed only a few centuries ago, the recitation of Hafez’s poetry. His beautiful compositions are read from books or uttered aloud by the many who have committed his works to memory. It is an easy feat to find at least a couple of persons within different families, who are very proficient at reciting Hafez’s beautiful words. 700 years have passed since his birth, and yet it is as though he is talking of today.
“We have come into this exquisite world to experience ever and ever more deeply our divine courage, freedom and light!”
|Hafez's Tomb (left); Tomb's intricate mosaic ceiling (right): Shiraz, Iran|
To nourish the body, a table would be filled abundantly with many essential edibles, appropriately symbolic, and designated for the long evening ahead. There would be mixed nuts-ajil, a mixture of gummy jewel toned dried fruits and jasmine scented nuts such as buttery pumpkin seeds, crunchy almonds and crinkly raisins that are said to lead to prosperity. Watermelon-hendevaneh: lusciously thirst quenching, with its seed-flecked flesh, a summer fruit said to keep one from falling ill during the winter. Pomegranates-anar, the star of the table, this ravishing and distinctive fruit has a significant association with Shab-e Yalda. With its taught leather-like outer skin representing “dawn” and its ruby red fleshy arils representing the “luminosity of life”, one can surmise why this fruit would be befitting.
The kids usually like to soften the pomegranate with their fingers without puncturing its skin and suck out all of its crimson nectar. I concede that this too, is my preferred method to consume an anar. As an adult, it is not the most attractive thing to do in the presence of company, but there is something so soothing about picturing the bursting of each seed in your minds eye as you intertwine your fingers and encircle the fat fruit with your thumbs. As each seed succumbs to giving up its juices, you started to feel the bulky fruit yielding and filling up with the almost un-containable amount of liquid it was sheltering. At that perfect moment when you knew you should not force it anymore without risking the tearing of the skin, you would bring it up to your mouth and bite a small hole at the side allowing the juices to rush out, happy to be relieved of their pressure. The tart acidic liquid would flow so quickly that you almost could not swallow it fast enough before it spilled out of the corners of your mouth. Invariably, my clothes were always ruined, and yet the grin never faltered to appear on my face, as it was all very well worth it.