On one of the most beloved Persian holidays, Shab-e-Yalda, the longest, darkest night of the year, families throughout Iran gather in the home of the oldest living matriarch to pass the long, cold evening together by flickering candlelight, waiting to welcome the dawn that marks the start of winter.
The happy sounds of cousins teasing one another, uncles singing, and women laughing echo off the mirrored walls of Grandma Aziz’s living room. She sits in her favorite chair, smoking her peach sheesha, the water bubbling like the rhythmic babbling of a brook.
In the old days, when she was a girl, a short table called a korsi would have been draped with thick red cloth, hot embers of coal burning in a metal basin underneath. The family would huddle around the warmth and tell stories while nibbling on the bounty of bright red pomegranates cracked open to expose their jewel-like seeds sprinkled with salt; thick slices of ruby-fleshed watermelon; confections from the bakery down the street; and ajil-e moshkel gosha (“problem solving nuts”), a mixture of pistachios, pumpkin seeds, noghl (sugar coated almond slivers), tart barberries, chewy cubes of Turkish delight, cashews, and golden raisins, dried figs, and apricots.
These days, the korsi is no longer needed, but the table is still draped in red, overflowing with the same delicacies. Persian tea is in plentiful supply, the double boiler of the traditional pot keeping the saffron-scented liquid piping hot. A stack of sugar cubes stands at the ready, the sweet squares plucked and dunked in cups of tea and placed in mouths where they slowly melt with each steaming sip.
Uncle Ahmad Reza stands up, a book of 14th century Persian poetry by the great Hafez in his hands. Shahnaz, my husband’s mother and the oldest of Aziz’s children, sets down her tea and speaks in Farsi.
Oh Hafez of Shiraz, knower of every secret. I swear to your God and to Shakheh Nabat (his muse and symbol of God’s beauty) that whatever you see is good for me, so make your vision apparent to me and grant my wish.
There is a pause, and then Ahmad Reza opens the book and begins to read. When he is finished, the room explodes with laughter and questions, as everyone tries to guess what it was that Shahnaz asked Hafez about the year to come. One by one everyone will take their turn, hearing the answers to their unspoken questions.
It is believed that to ask Hafez something more than three times will make him angry, though that doesn’t always detour this crowd, and the house remains filled with the cursive sound of ancient poetry long into the night. Once fortunes have been read, the backgammon boards come out and the music becomes louder. Amin, the husband of Shahnaz’s daughter Cinera, dances baba karam for Aziz as she chortles and waves him away through a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke. Uncle Ali Reza joins him and everyone claps and cheers.
In Zoroastrian times, this would go on all night as families stayed up to ensure they remained safe from the evil spirits of the darkness until the break of dawn signaled the birth of Mithra, the Sun Angel, a Zoroastrian symbol of light and goodness. But that was long ago, as my husband says, “back in the days when we worshiped fire.” Over the centuries, the holiday has evolved, and these days, the celebrations don’t go all night, but are likely to last until two or three o’clock in the morning.
Originally called Shab-e-Chella, or night of forty days, the holiday marked the first night of the three-month winter or winter solstice, but at some point after the 1st century, Syriac Christians traveled to Persia to find relief from religious persecution, and the name of their festival, Nestorian Christan Yalda, a celebration of the birth of Christ (aka Christmas) that was also celebrated during the winter solstice, came to be used interchangeably with Shab-e-Chella, now most commonly known as Shab-e-Yalda.
With the advent of Islam, new traditions were added to the celebration, including a variation on the Istikhara prayers. Istikhara are prayed when a Muslim is struggling to make a decision about something and they incite Allah to show them the right path. After reciting two rakat, they open the Koran to find the answer on the page to which they turn. For Shab-e-Yalda, the poetry of one of Iran’s greatest and most beloved poets, Hafez, is consulted in a light-hearted, fortune-telling ritual that speaks to the fact that the celebration is now more cultural than religious.
Shab-e-Yalda is a joyful time to gather with family and think about the year ahead, and of course—as with any good Persian holiday—to eat. There may be many different kinds of sweets on the tables across Iran, but ever-present are watermelon slices and pomegranates, whose rich hues symbolize the hopeful light of dawn, and problem solving nuts, a sweet-savory mixture with Sufi roots, whose legend tells of a man who finds comfort only after purchasing the mixture from a knowing nut vendor and then sharing both his snack and his troubles with another man in need. Through their communion and conversation, both are blessed and part ways having found what they were seeking. They are said to be good luck to anyone who eats them.
As I recently married into this Persian family, I now officially count myself among this holiday’s participants. This year, on December 21st, my husband and I will celebrate in our own way, far from the warmth of that Tehran hearth, far from the sweet smell of Aziz’s sheesha, far from the whirling dance of Amin and Ali Reza, far from the jingling laughter of Cinera and Shahnaz, and far from the steady words of Hafez being recited by Ahmad Reza.
I will dress a table in bright red cloth. On it I will place bowls of pomegranate and slices of watermelon. I will make my own mixture of ajil-e moshkel gosha using whatever ingredients I can find. And, while sipping on rich black tea honeyed with saffron, I will sit next to my husband, whose people can still feel the heat of their ancestors dancing around fire, who still mourn and celebrate their Prophets’ heroic sacrifices for their families, who can still hear the cannon of their poets’ voices, and I too will listen, for the first time, to Hafez’s prophesy for me.
- 1 cup roasted, salted pumpkin seeds
- 1 cup shelled whole, salted pistachios
- 1/2 cup hazelnuts
- 1/2 cup cashews
- 1/2 cup roasted, unsalted almonds
- 1/2 cup Leblebi (dried, salted chickpeas)
- 1 cup noghl (sugar-coated slivered almonds)
- 2/3 cup golden raisins
- 1/2 cup black raisins or dried mulberries
- 10 apricots, chopped or whole
- 10 dried figs, halved
- 1 mall box of Turkish delight cubes (1/2 inch pieces)
Felicia Campbell is the author of The Food of Oman.