Shab-e-Yalda - an ancient winter solstice celebration that commemorates the triumph of Mithra
For Iranians around the world, the winter solstice is not just the longest night of the year, it is also the time to commemorate the triumph of Mithra , the Sun God, over darkness in an ancient Persian celebration known as Shab-e-Yalda.
The celebration, which translates to “Night of Birth” and is celebrated on the eve of the first day of Winter (21-22 December), has come to symbolise many things. Not only has it become a significant cultural celebration, but it is part of Iranian tradition “where evil will run havoc on the longest night of the year,” according to Touraj Daryaee, a professor of Iranian studies. “So people gather to be together until evil is gone… it's an old idea where you need protection from evil." According to ancient belief, when the sun rises, the light shines and goodness prevails.
Mithra divinity statue in Vatican library, old illustration. By unidentified author. Source: BigStockPhotos
On Shab-e Yalda, making wishes, eating summer fruits and reciting works by 14 th century Persian poet, Hafez, help mark the triumph of Mithra over darkness.
"Each member of the family makes a wish and randomly opens Hafez's book of poems and recites the poem, which is believed to be an interpretation to the wish," said Bita Milanian, executive director of Farhang Foundation, a nonprofit that celebrates Iranian art and culture in Southern California.
Yalda Night table in the celebration of Persians (Iranians) in Holland, Amsterdam (Wikimedia Commons)
Mithra, in ancient Indo-Iranian mythology is the god of light, whose cult spread from India in the east to as far west as Spain, Great Britain, and Germany. The Indian Mitra was essentially a solar deity, representing the "friendly" aspect of the sun. So too was the Persian derivative Mithra, who was a "benevolent god" and the bestower of health, wealth and food.
The first written mention of the Vedic Mitra dates to 1400 BC. His worship spread to Persia and, after the defeat of the Persians by Alexander the Great, throughout the Hellenic world. In the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the cult of Mithra, carried and supported by the soldiers of the Roman Empire, was the chief rival to the newly developing religion of Christianity.