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Dispatch | Yalda: The Evolution of an Iranian Tradition


27 Dec 2012 06:06Comments
7f9a8030-7e04-4b81-aa78-4bc7c8fcbeeL.jpg A winter festival that predates the Prophet becomes an occasion to reassert national identity.

[ dispatch ] The sun has set on Tehran. It is Yalda now.

It is Thursday, December 20, the last day of the month of Azar in the Persian calendar. The winter solstice has begun -- the longest night of the year, the night of Yalda. The history of the seasonal celebration dates back to pre-Islamic Iran and the Mithraists, for whom Yalda was the night when Mithra, the angel of light and truth, was born. The tradition was adopted in turn by the Zoroastrians. With the arrival of Islam on the Iranian Plateau, Yalda became a purely social occasion without religious or official standing. For centuries, it was quietly observed by many Iranians with family gatherings and readings from the classical masters such as Hafez. That has largely changed.

Cars choke the streets of Tehran and the capital's notorious traffic jams are even worse than usual. People are heading to their Yalda parties after lining up outside shops since early afternoon. The shelves of pastry stores are empty. The prices for pistachios and the dried fruit-and-nut mix known as ajil have been rising for the past week, although the bakery and candy shop syndicate has announced that there is no shortage of Yalda treats. Coffee shops across the city have hung signs inviting people to come celebrate Yalda. To a foreign observer, it would seem self-evident that a national holiday is being observed.

Is this the norm in modern Iran? Morteza, a cab driver who works out of an agency on Sattar Khan Street in west Tehran, does not think so. "Yalda became important in the last few years; it was just a tradition and not a very important one." Nooshin, a psychologist from south Tehran, agrees. "Yalda was an occasion for people to get together, to meet their elders and to recite poetry and have fresh fruits and snacks." Now, "Yalda is a really big deal for many," she says. "From a night of family reunions and poetry readings, Yalda has evolved into a night of dancing and parties." She has seen many Yalda fêtes where alcohol -- entirely illegal in the Islamic Republic -- flowed freely.

For Bahareh, a 36-year-old physician, Yalda is a time to mix old traditions with new habits. "In our family, we usually get together at my grandparents' house. All my uncles and aunts are there with their children." She used to find such gatherings fun, but as Bahareh grew older her tastes changed. "I like my family, but hanging out with the older generation can be a bit boring," she says.

Tonight she will drop by her grandparents' place, but then head elsewhere for most of the evening. "My brother and I will hit a few parties in the north of Tehran." She even plans a costume change: a fashionable, yet modest outfit for the family will be followed by an evening dress for the party rounds. "It's a younger crowd and you need to look good," she explains. As for alcohol, she is looking forward to having some wine after hearing her grandfather read from Hafez. "A party without alcohol is not a party!" she proclaims. She is rushing home as her itinerary requires careful preparation.

The shift in how Yalda is celebrated has had economic consequences, as evidenced by those retail queues. In the Yousef Abad neighborhood, at one point there were at least 80 people lined up outside Bibi, a popular pastry shop. The cost of watermelon, a Yalda delicacy, has risen to new heights. Many from north Tehran have headed to farmers' markets on the south side to try to find it at a reasonable price. Javid, a grocery store owner in his mid-50s, is not happy. "Damn truck drivers halt by the roadside to sell their load to the passersby. I cannot find what my customers need and am losing clients to these pirates!" There is a heavy trade in alcoholic beverages as well. Kasra, a 26-year-old salesman, has already received his order of beer and Cognac for the night.

Kashani, who runs a pastry shop close to Vali Asr Square, says the celebration is good for his business. "People start to shop for Yalda a day or two before.... They come early to place orders so they can pick up fresh pastries in the afternoon." His cakes and cream puffs disappear as soon as they emerge from the kitchen. Kashani compares the increase in his sales to the one that precedes Nowruz, the Persian New Year's holiday. "It is not quite as much as Nowruz, but it is similar, maybe one of the biggest nights after that for us." The spike in pistachio and pastry prices tends to presage the level of temporary inflation around New Year's.

"What makes people happy is good for business and right now Yalda makes them happy," says Kashani. Last year, he ran out of baked goods on Yalda. This year, he believes, he is fully prepared to meet the increased demand.

Why has Yalda grown into such a major festival? According to Morteza, "People have no real entertainment, they are not happy anymore. They use any excuse to celebrate." Almost everyone I ask replies with some variation on that theme. Nooshin, for instance: "Yalda has become important because our people are looking for new ways of entertainment, trying to be happy." Mr. Hosseini, a retired teacher in his 60s, says, "People are celebrating their heritage. They want to tell the government that they are Iranians and they have Iranian heritage too."

Celebrating Yalda as a way of underscoring a distinctly Iranian identity is not new, says Nooshin. "However, people have become adamant about their cultural identity recently," she asserts. Mr. Hosseini concurs completely. "Our government wants to change us into something we are not. People do not want that and use every opportunity to keep their traditions." Riding Morteza's cab, he noticed how much more visible the celebration is around the capital compared to years past. "The government does not like Yalda, but now they have to acknowledge it because of the people."

It does seems that the authorities are taking notice. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) 1 is airing the American blockbuster comedy Meet the Parents. Dubbed into Persian, it has been rigorously censored according to IRIB rules. No one has any doubt, however, that it is a special screening for Yalda. Other TV and radio channels are broadcasting Persian music and poetry readings. A national photography competition dedicated to capturing Yalda moments is being held.

Still, the regime is hardly joining the party wholesale. A group of high-ranking clerics just announced that Friday, the day after Yalda, is the anniversary of the Second Imam, Hassan Mojtaba, whose martyrdom has traditionally been mourned three weeks later. The pious are advised to mark the occasion with prayer and mourning ceremonies. Morteza believes the sudden change of calendar is intended to dampen the public mood on Yalda itself. If indeed that was the intent, it has evidently failed.

It is getting late and the streets are still jammed. Yalda has just begun. Tehran, under the veil of darkness, celebrates its own unconquerable spirit.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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