Editor’s note: KERA and The Dallas Morning News are collaborating to cover arts and culture in North Texas. The News’ Sarah Sedaghatzadeh shares a tradition from her Persian culture.
On the longest night of this year, December 21, open the door to a Persian home, and you’ll see the vibrant hues of red glimmering in candlelight.
Listen and you will hear strums of sitar and santoor playing in the background.
Breathe in and you’ll smell fragrances of saffron and sweet pomegranate stews wafting from the kitchen.
The sofreh, or table, is set to resemble the colors of fire: red, yellow and orange. Foods such as ripe watermelon, sparkly pomegranate seeds, and dried nuts are offered, representing good fortune, rebirth and rejuvenation.
Families gather to read the intricate poems of Hafez, a 14th century Persian poet whose words have become everyday proverbs.
All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
‘You owe me.’
With a love like that,
It lights the
These are the traditions of Yalda Night, which celebrates a rebirth of life and awakens our spirits on the longest night of the year.
What Shab-e-Yalda means to me
I identify as a bicultural person, having been raised in two distinct cultures. I embrace my Persian roots while also celebrating American holidays and traditions.
My mother, Massie Soufimanesh, immigrated to Texas in 1978 at the end of the Iranian Revolution. Growing up in Iran, she celebrated Yalda every winter with her family.
“My dad would sit us down and read Shahnameh (Book of Kings, by poet Ferdowsi) or Hafez to all of us five kids,” my mother said. “We would sit under the corsi — the heated table — and snack on nuts and watermelon until dinner was ready.”
Yalda is a word derived from ancient Syrian language meaning birth. Shabe Yalda, also known as Yalda night, is celebrated on the last day of autumn, or the last day of Maah e Azar. The celebration lasts all night to usher in the morning of the first day of winter.
Historically, Zoroastrians would celebrate the birth of the sun god Mithra, a divine being resembling light and goodness. The celebration of Yalda is meant to mark a victory of the sun over darkness (the long night) and goodness over evil.
After my mom settled down here, she immediately immersed herself in American culture — more specifically Texas culture — and raised me and my sister to celebrate Christmas over Shab-e-Yalda.
Being raised Christian, church and Christmas were always of utmost importance in our household. I am beyond grateful for the years of Christmas traditions as a first-generation Iranian American.
But when I learned about Shab-e-Yalda as I got older, I wondered why I had not learned about it sooner.
My sister had the incredible opportunity to visit Iran in 1991 (a year before I blessed her with my life). Because of the 8 months she spent there as a young girl, she always had more love and passion for Persian cultural traditions and holidays than I had.
Two years ago, she began educating me on the celebrations of Shab-e-Yalda and including it in our usual holiday festivities.
When my sister, Christina Arezu Akhavanzadeh-Solis, described her childhood experience with Yalda, she said it was magical.
“I’ll never forget my Maman Bozorg (grandmother) reading Hafez’s poems to me and my cousins,” she said. “As I got older and began adulting on my own and taking ownership of pieces of our culture that mattered to me, it meant the world to me to pass the magic of our roots on to you and to make sure you would have that same understanding and experience, too.”
So she began hosting our family and close friends, and now it’s become part of our holiday tradition. “Like our ancestors have prepared for and celebrated every year,” she said.
When I began learning about the symbolism of Yalda night, I was overcome by the colors, fragrances, foods, and culture of the event.
Congregating with family and friends on a dark cold night and celebrating the newness of the season while reading poems of Hafez and listening to classical Persian music is something every person — even non-Persians — should experience.
The foods of Shab-e-Yalda
Anar, or pomegranate, holds specific significance to Yalda night as it represents fertility, light and goodness. The juicy ruby fruit of the seed symbolizes birth while the white pit represents the glow of life.
Watermelon and persimmons are also presented to immunize you and keep you cool before the hot summer months.
Ajeel (nut mixture) and khoshkbar (dried fruits), symbolic of prosperity and good fortune, are also available to snack on throughout the night.
A famous dish I grew up with, khoresht-e-fesenjan, is a notable Yalda dish that I never knew was specific to the holiday.
It’s a pomegranate-walnut stew that can be made with duck, chicken or beef marinated in a thick, tangy and sweet pomegranate paste with ground walnuts. The stew is often paired with traditional Persian rice, embellished with a dash of saffron.
My mom always made this stew for me as a child, and I never knew its importance to Yalda until a couple years ago.
Personally, fesenjan with beef meatballs is my favorite. My mom likes it with duck. We would also always snack on nuts and dried fruits in the wintertime — I guess in a way she was subconsciously incorporating Yalda traditions into the holidays.
“America is called the melting pot for a reason,” my mother said. “I realize now most of what I was raised with was melted into American culture.”
Last year our family blended Christmas traditions with Yalda traditions and mixed treats and decorations.
After dinner, we sipped cardamom infused black tea as we snacked on sweets like saffron rock candy, walnut cookies, or Christmas cookies.
If you want to try making fesenjan yourself, here are some of my favorite takes on the recipe:
From Persian Mama, made with chicken thighs: https://persianmama.com/chicken-in-walnut-pomegranate-sauce-khoresht-fesenjan/
From Comfort Food Infusion, made with meatballs: https://comfortfoodinfusion.com/pomegranate-walnut-and-meatball-stew/
Celebrate with me
Prior to COVID, Dallas hosted many Yalda events with readings of Hafez poetry, Yalda potlucks, and performances of classical Persian music, song and dance. Many events didn’t happen in 2020.
Last year, I was blessed to celebrate Yalda at my sister’s home with my mom and cousin. It was quiet and small but still a beautiful experience. I am hoping to have more family members gathered this year for Shab-e-Yalda.
Here’s how you can celebrate it, too.
On December 21, open The Gift by Hafez, and make a wish. Allow Hafez to speak to you. Let him guide you to any page and read the poem chosen for you and embrace the message.
Feast on some good fortune nuts and eat some pomegranates to bring in light on a dark winter night. Accept the newness of the winter season, the rebirth, the light, and the triumph of the sun over darkness.
Welcome to Shab-e-Yalda.
A version of this story appears on dallasnews.com.