Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Yalda and the “night of (the great) forty”‎

Posted by Fredsvenn on December 22, 2014

Šab-e Čella(-e bozorg) (“night of (the great) forty”‎) or Šab-e Yaldā (“Yalda night”‎) is an Iranian festival celebrated on the “longest and darkest night of the year,” that is, in the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice. It was officially added to Iran’s List of National Treasures in a special ceremony in 2008.

Calendarically, it is celebrated in the night between the last day of the ninth month (Azar) and the first day of the tenth month (Dae) of the Iranian civil calendar, which corresponds to the night of December 20 or 21 each year.

The longest and darkest night of the year is a time when friends and family gather together to eat, drink and read poetry (especially Hafez) until well after midnight. Fruits and nuts are eaten and pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant. The red color in these fruits symbolizes the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life.

The poems of Divan-e-Hafez, which can be found in the bookcases of most Iranians families, are intermingled with peoples’ life and are read or recited during various occasions like this festival and at Nowruz.

The longest and darkest night of the year marks “the night opening the initial forty-day period of the three-month winter”, from which the name Chella, “forty”, derives.

There are all together three 40-day periods, one in summer, and two in the winter. The two winter periods are known as the “great chella” period (1 Day (10th Persian calendar month) to 11 Bahman, 40 full days), followed/overlapped by the “small chella” period (10 Bahman to 30 Bahman, 20 days + 20 nights = 40 nights and days).

Shab-e Chella is the night opening the “big chella” period, that is the night between the last day of autumn and the first day of winter. The other name of the festival, ‘Yaldā’, is a borrowing from Syriac and is “connected with Christianity”.

In the 1st-3rd centuries significant numbers of Eastern Christians settled in Arsacid and Sassanid territories, where they had received protection from religious persecution.

Through them, Western Iranians (i.e. Parthians, Persians etc.) came in contact with Christian religious observances, including, it seems, Nestorian Christian Yalda, which in Syriac (a Middle Aramaic dialect) literally means “birth”, but was also one of the Syriac words for Christmas, which – because it fell nine months after Annunciation – was celebrated on eve of the winter solstice.

Although it is not clear when and where the Syriac word was adopted into Persian, gradually ‘Shab-e Yalda’ and ‘Shab-e Cheleh’ became synonymous and the two are used interchangeably.

An association with the 40-day “chella” period is preserved amongst Iranian Azerbaijanis, who call it Chilla Gejasi, which means the beginning of the first 40 days of winter. The Iranian concept also survives in Urdu-speaking Kashmir, India, where Chillai Kalan designates the 40-day harshest winter period.


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