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The Iranian Festivity of birth of “Mehr” (Mithra)
During The winter solstice
By: Dr. Touradj Parsi- Dr.shahin sepanta
(Pasargad Heritage Foundation)
Synopsis: Yalda Fesivity, also known as “Chelle” occurs during the last night of autumn (December 21st or Azar 30th in Iranian calendar) which is the longest night of the year. This occasion is celebrated with much excitement and enthusiasm in its original birthplace, Iran. The festivity has its stems in the ancient rituals of “Mehr” that are being observed in Iran and also other Asiatic and European communities. It is a night of happy gathering of family members and having different seasonal fruits such as watermelon, pomegranate and different nuts.
The Roots: In thousands years ago, people who lived in natural surroundings, observed the periodic movements of the sun, the moon and the stars and noticed the changes occurring in seasons, length of days and nights and withering away and rebirth of the natural habitat in relation to those cosmic movements and, thus, regulated their own daily activities accordingly and usefully. Nature was the source of their lives and livelihood and they saw the natural phenomena as God-given and worthy of praise. Amongst the cosmic element, it was the Sun and its rays of light (Mehr) that bestowed life and comfort to the earth and its inhabitants. It was naturally the focal point of such praise. The next step was to imagine a spiritual source of life whose material manifestation was the Sun and its light. God was, thus, the real source behind the Sun. This initiated the worship of the abstract, spiritual God of Mehr whose attributes were peace, love, kindness, promise-keeping and moderation. The man on earth was commissioned to develop such attributes in her/himself.
Mehr is the same as Mitra in Sanskrit, Mithra in Avestan, Mitr in Pahlavi and Mitra or Mehr in modern Persian language.
Mehr means promise, contract, and relationship between two or more people both in Sanskrit and Avestan languages. In modern Persian, Mehr also means love, friendship, reconciliation and promise. Upon such premises, and within the Iranian culture, Mehr is the antidote of lies and liars. You cannot expect a liar to keep her/his promises and whoever remains faithful to her/his promise has certainly chosen the path of rightfulness.
As a mundane and natural phenomenon, Mehr is the guarantor of perpetuation of existence and expansion of pure benevolence. It is manifested in every contract between man and man, man and her/his environment and her/his acceptance of the responsibility of caring for her/his family, city and country. Thus, in a deeper level of meaning, the one who keeps her/his promises is the guardian of the whole existence. It is through such interpretation that “keeping promises” becomes synonymous with “development and construction” while “breaking promises” becomes equal to “destruction and darkness”. Upon such interpretation, the cosmic system works upon such norm (Asha) and is hold together through the faithfulness to promises and responsibilities undertaken.
This mindset has had its deep effects on the Iranian culture and literature. In Iranian calendar, the 16th day of each month and the 7th month of the year are named as “Mehr”. The 10th chapter (Yasht) of the Zoroastrian holy book (New Avesta) is also named as Mehr. Herodotus has reported that Iranians in Achaemenid period named their children after Mehr. In addition to that, the word “promise” (Peiman) was also chosen as a name for the children.
The Mehr worshipers used to put a “Mehr Ring” on each-others’ fingers as a symbol of love and friendship and this beautiful manifestation of love has now turned into a symbol of marriage of young couples all over the world.
Mehr worship was born and developed in Iran and persistently remained in that country with a spectrum of variegated forms and manifestations, with vast numbers of followers at all time. The oldest documents that refer to Mehr or Mithra that was worshipped by Iranians and Indians of sub-continent are a few cylinders from 1400 BC that were discovered in 1907 in Cappadocia, relating to a contract between Hebtis and Mitanies. These documents are now 4100 years old. Nevertheless, archeologists believe that the roots of Mehr Worshipping go back in history for many more millennia.
During the first century BC, this theosophy was transferred to the realm of the Roman Empire, under the influence of Iranian culture but with a new face and details collectively known as Mithraism. It was then spread out by Romans to all corners of Europe, Western Hemisphere, North Africa, Asia Minor, and around the Black Sea. It took Mithraism five more centuries to reach to most corners of the inhabited world and its temples sprang up all over Europe. According to the available archeological and historical investigations, at the beginning of the 4th century AD, there were 300 Mithraic temples in Italy. The Roman legionnaires took this faith to the territories under the rule of the Empire such as Germany, Austria and British Isles. It was only after the advent of 4th century and with the expansion of Christianity that Mithraic faith and its rituals began to fade away in Europe.
Yet, even today, many of Mitra’s rituals and traditions are alive amongst Iranians and other nations of the world. Iranians have had two ancient festivities relevant to Mehr. The first one is called Mehrgan and the second one, which is the subject of this article, is known as “Yalda”.
Yalda Fesitivity, the celebration of the birth of Mehr: Many thousands of years ago, Iranians had discovered that as of the first day of the month named “Dey” (1) days begin to become longer and nights get shorter, with the sun lingering in the sky, scattering its life-giving light for longer periods during the days. Thus, the last night of the autumn, i.e. the longest night of the year, together with the dawn of the first day of winter (2) by the rising light of the Sun/Mehr, was considered as the birth of Mehr. They celebrated this night that later became known as Yalda or Chelle (3). The festivity has been kept alive up to our times. Yalda means “birth” in Soryani language (4). The name was brought into Iranian by Soryani Christians.
The 40 days span between the first of Dey up to the 10th of Bahman (5) (in which Iranians observe their ancient festivity of Sadeh), is called “Chelle Bozorg” (The major 40s) and the period between 10th of Bahman up to 20th of Esfand is named as “Chelle Kuchak” (The Minor 40s). The intensity of coldness is much lesser in the second Chelle.
The biggest Roman festivity was also called Sol – Natalis Invictus, which meant “The Birth of the Invincible Sun”. Natalis has changed into Noel that means Birth. After getting to know the Mithrais theosophy, the Roman Sun and Mithra became one.
Yalda, the longest night of the year: Earth reaches to the end of its winter revolution, or winter equinox, on the first day of Dey (December 21th). In that point, the inhabitants of the Northern hemisphere experience the longest night of the year. For the inhabitants of the Southern hemisphere, it is the shortest night. Nevertheless, the length of the winter equinox is not the same in all parts of the Northern hemisphere. The length of day and night is equal on the Equator line. But, as we go north, the length of the night becomes longer. The following table shows this length in different cities:
City Country Length of Yalda
Mecca Saudi Arabia 13 hours and 18 minutes
Medina Saudi Arabia 13 hours and 32 minutes
Chabahar Iran 13 hours and 36 minutes
Yazd Iran 14 hours and 5 minutes
Isfahan Iran 14 hours and 9 minutes
Tehran Iran 14 hours and 26 minutes
Mashad Iran 14 hours and 29 minutes
Tabriz Iran 14 hours and 39 minutes
Berlin Germany 15 hours and 36 minutes
Paris France 15 hours and 59 minutes
London Great Britain 16 hours and 25 minutes
Moscow Russia 17 hours and 17 minutes
Stockholm Sweden 18 hours and 18 minutes
Reykjavik Island 20 hours and 31 minutes Loleo Sweden 21 hours and 44 minutes
The table clearly shows that the length of Yalda is different in different countries. For example, in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, the sun rises at 8:55 am and sets at 2:37pm. Therefore, the length of the day ending in Yadla is only 5 hours and 42 minutes. In such a day, the Sun’s rays are very week because it does not rise above the horizon more than a mere 8 degrees.
The rituals of Yalda night: Like other Iranian festivities, Yalda is a family happening. Most of the Iranian families, regardless of their religion and faith, celebrate the night around a source of light (whether a candle or a fireplace). They decorate a table cloth (mostly spread on the floor) with special dishes. The contents of the dishes are called “Shab-chere” which are comprised of seven fruits and nuts. Other than the “shab-chere” many people add traditional and even non-traditional sweets and cookies too.
People’s enthusiasm in shopping for special Yalda food stuff could clearly been detected in bazaars and food and fruit shops a few you days before equinox and reaches its peak during December 20 and 21st. Usually such shopping continues well into the night and even one can see people shopping just few moments before the midnight.
Amongst fruits that are consumed at Yalda, one can mention watermelon, pomegranate and grape. Other summer fruits such as apples, melons, cucumbers and often quince are also used. Watermelon has its especial place in this list and pending on the financial position of the family shopping for it had priority over other friuts. Many people believe that having some watermelon during the night of Yalda guarantees the immunity of people from cold all through the “major 40” and the whole season of winter. Other researchers believe that consuming water melon and pomegranate during this night has a symbolic significance and both of the two fruits; being round and red, imply the warmth of Mehr/sun during the longest night of winter.
Shab-chere also includes many sorts of seeds such an wheat, hemp, puffed rice, toasted peas, watermelon, pumpkin and sun-flower seeds, nuts, pistachio, walnut, hazelnuts. Dried fruits such as grapes, figs, peaches and berries are also a part of the list.
The Yalda dinner is also a special one and its final ingredients depend on the financial conditions of the family. After having dinner, members of the family go to the houses of their elders to be with them all through this nocturnal party.
Preparing a table with variegated foods has its roots in one of ancient Mehri rituals that was called Bazm-e-Mehr (meaning “Mehr party”). In this ceremony the followers of Mehrism used to sit at the table-cloth shoulder to shoulder signifying their brotherhood, equality and faithfulness to their promises and contracts. They used to eat beef and later some sort of sacred bread called Drona and drank a certain drink called Haoma.
This ritual is still alive amongst the Zoroastrians and is known as Myzad. They put different sorts of food stuff such as a certain kind of bread known as Sirug, and a mixture of nuts called Lork. After their communal prayer, the food and nuts are divided amongst the attendees and they eat them as a sign of good luck.
One of the traditions related to Yalda night which is customary amongst the Iranian families, is to take special Yalda gifts and presents for the newly weds. Usually, in the case of those couples who have already taken the marriage woes but have not yet begun to live under the same roof, the mother of the groom sends a bundle of special Yalda food stuff, as well as some presents such as dresses and gold jewelries for the bride. The mother of the latter does the same. In certain areas of Iran this ceremony is executed the night after Yalda. In most cases, this signifies the beginning of the cohabitation of the couples.
In recent centuries, referring to the book of poems of Iranian great mystic poet, Hafez, and interpreting his poems from his book that gets haphazardly opened has been added to the ceremonies of the night in many families.
The necessity of including Yalda in the registrar of the World Heritage: Yalda, is the festivity of global love, friendship and peace that is observed by Iranian families and many other communities regardless of their race, religion and calling. During this nocturnal festivity people anticipate the coming of dawn and the warmth of the shining Mehr and spread this warmth, taken from the nature, amongst them. The closeness of Yalda to Christmas (December 25th) and the similarities between the two festivities can be seen as the manifestation of unanimity of all people from all walks of life. Better knowledge of this ancient festivity and its inclusion in the list of world heritages as a common heritage of the whole humanity can contribute to the closeness of nations. In addition to that, by helping to preserve it and enhance the values hidden in it would facilitate the transference of a beautiful tradition to the generations to come.
1. The month of Dey in Iranian calendar begings at December 22nd and ends on January 20th.
2. Autumn in Iranian calendar is comprised of three months of Mehr, Aban anf Azar (from September 23rd to December 21st). Winter season is comprised of Dey, Bahman and Esfand (from December 22nd to March 19th).
3. A period of 40 days is called Chelle or Chehelle.
4. Soryani was the language of people of Syria and northern Iraq from times before the birth of Christ well into the advent of Islam. There are still some who speak the language.
5. In Iranian calendar, the month of Bahman begins on January 21st and ends on February 19th. According to Iranian belief system, the 10th day of Bahman that coincides with January 30th is the day when the mythological king of Iran discovered the fire. The festivity related to this day is called Jashn-e-sade or the Fire Party.
6. Iranian month of Esfand begings on February 20th and ends on March 19th.