Iran's ancient Yalda night festival, ravaged by mullah economics and repression

Iranians celebrate the arrival of winter with the Yalda festival. Yalda, or Shab-e Chelleh ("the night of Chelleh") is an ancient and uniquely Iranian festival celebrated on the longest and darkest night of the year, marking the Dec. 21 winter solstice.  Yalda comes from the Zoroastrian tradition and means birth, the renewal of the sun, and the victory of light over darkness.  Zoroastrianism is an ancient and indigenous Iranian faith that predates Christianity.  The biblical Magi, who traveled following a star to visit the baby Jesus in Israel, were believed by scholars to have been Zoroastrians.  Zoroastrians still exist in Iran today, and their traditions are widely followed by Iranians.  The Yalda Night festival traditions include friends and family gathering together until well after midnight, to eat and read poetry (especially Hafez – one of the most renowned Persian poets); telling stories and jokes; and, for some, dancing.  Nuts and fruits are eaten, of which pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant, as the red color in these fruits symbolizes the glow of life.

Here is an example of how beautiful this celebration can be:

Yalda is celebrated in most parts of Iran, with extended families gathering and enjoying a fine dinner together.  A wide variety of fruits and sweetmeats, specifically prepared or kept for this night, are traditionally served.  These items, and more, are commonly placed on a korsi (a traditional type of low table found in Iran, with a heater underneath it and blankets thrown over it), which people sit around on the night of Chelleh.  It's cozy and comfortable.

After dinner, the older members of the family entertain the others by telling them tales and anecdotes while some of the party enjoy themselves dancing and singing.

Sadly, this year, the people face a deteriorated economy, corruption, poverty, unemployment, and mismanagement.  The father of four children in Esfahan, a city in central Iran famous for its beautiful architecture, said: "Yalda is just the darkest night for us now because we can buy nothing when a single pistachio is 1,000 toman (almost 8 U.S. cents)."  Pistachios are Iran's most famous nut and are a major cash crop in the country.  Meanwhile, the mullahs' inflation regime has seen the value of the Iranian currency, the toman (1 toman = 10 rials), slide to more than 10,000 on the dollar, and a single rial, according to Google, is worth only 0.000024 U.S. dollars.

He added, "And this, while the Iranian nation's wealth goes into war-mongering, in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, on ballistic missile production, and into the coffers of its corrupt officials."

One local in Tehran said: "Our economy is like a person who has all kinds of disease but no medicine available."  He added: "The only medicine is regime change."  He had more to say: "We are going to hold the Yalda traditional festival in shortage and contaminated water and with sandstorm weather."  One local in the city of Ahvaz sighed, adding, "Our fellow workers are in the streets protesting unpaid wages, or in jail."  He added: "A few days ago, authorities raided the homes of tens of our workers that led to their arrest.  They were transferred to an unknown location."

In addition to that, the mullahs have stepped up repression of the much loved Iranian festival.  In recent years, security forces in Iran have regularly carried out raids on private parties celebrating the Yalda festival. 

A few years ago, the mullahs' chief of the Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization issued an order banning Yalda tours.

This year's Yalda festival for the Iranian people, with 40% under the severe poverty line, holds no meaning unless it signifies that they are indeed currently suffering the longest and darkest period of their lives and that better times are on their way.

Hassan Mahmoudi is a human rights advocate, specializing in economic issues relating to Iran.  Follow him on Twitter at @hassan_mahmou1.

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