This article first appeared in the FEZANA JOURNAL FALL 2015 Vol 29 No 3 page 76-79
Yalda Festival Table
(Shab e Cheleh)
By Rita J. Kapadia
Shab-e Yalda: When Light Shines and Goodness Prevails
Everywhere in the world, people observe various seasonal days of celebration during the month of December. Most are religious holy days and are linked in some way to the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Yalda, an ancient Iranian Festival, is celebrated on the eve of the winter solstice and goes several thousand years back in the country’s history. The tradition originated from the Mithraism religion. “Yalda” is a Syriac word meaning birth, and it was believed that Mithra, the Persian angel of light, was born during that night, which was then called Yalda.
Yalda is a Syric word imported into the Persian language by the Syric Christians. Early Christians linked this very ancient Persian celebration to Mithra, goddess of light, and to the birth anniversary of Prophet Jesus. Ancient Iranian Zoroastrians believed that on December 21 darkness is defeated by light. On this night, family and friends get together. Dried nuts, watermelon and pomegranate juices and delicious snack are served. Classic poetry and old mythologies are read aloud.
As the longest night of the year, the Eve of Yalda (Shab-e Yalda) on December 21 is also a turning point, after which the days grow longer. It symbolizes the triumph of Light and Goodness over the powers of Darkness. During this night, Iranian Americans, along with Iranians around the globe, hold gatherings and stay up late, eating pomegranate, watermelon and a variety of nuts. They also read poetry, especially by the poet Hafez, who is a highly respected and adored 14th-century Persian mystic poet. Hafez’s poetry books have been gaining a foothold in American classrooms and popularity among Americans. Here is a line in the poetry of Hafez that I found interesting – “Look at the sun in quest of light, you may find it.”
Many varieties of fruits and sweetmeats are specially prepared for this festival. In some areas it is believed that forty varieties of edibles should be served during the ceremony of the night of Chelleh. The most typical is watermelon especially kept from summer for this ceremony. It is believed that consuming watermelons on the night of Chelleh will ensure the health and well-being of the individual during the months of summer by protecting him/her from falling victim to excessive heat or disease produced by hot summers. Another common practice on the night of Chelleh involves young engaged men. The bachelors send a platter containing seven kinds of fruits to their fiancées on this night. The girl and her family can return the favor by sending gifts back for the young man.
The Parsi community has been celebrating with a “Haft-seen Table” at Navroze (Nawruz) events, why not celebrate with a “Yalda Table” in the December Holiday season as well ?
Here are 3 recipes created for your Yalda Table.
Sweet & Sour Yalda Drink
A Nutritious Fresh Drink to energize you!
1 cup Pomegranate juice
1 Cup Watermelon pieces (without seeds)
¼ black pepper
Watermelon cut into cubes or round balls.
1 drop of edible red color combined with ¼ cup of water
1 drop of Rose essence
- Blend the pomegranate juice, watermelon pieces, sugar, salt and black pepper in a blender.
- In a small container, soak the watermelon cubes/balls in the the red colored water
- Add a drop of rose essence very carefully.
- In your serving glass combine all of the above and add ice if desired.
- Garnish with a piece of flavored watermelon on rim of glass.
- Pomegranates are reminders of the cycle of life.
- The purple outer covering of a pomegranate symbolizes birth or dawn, and their bright red seeds the glow of life.
Nutty Feta Cheese Spread
Sweet and Salty Spread to go with your favorite crackers !
½ cup crushed walnuts
1 cup Feta Cheese
¼ cup Raisins
1/2 tsp salt or to taste
Your favorite crackers (I used Tostitos Scoops)
- Combine all of above in a food processor till blended and smooth.
- Taste for salt and serve on your favorite crackers.
Roasted Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are also called “Magaj” or “Magaz” in India and are highly nutritious.
These seeds are one of the ingredients in the parsi favorite “Vasanu”.
1 cup roasted pumpkin seeds
1/4 tsp Salt
1/4 tsp Turmeric powder
1/4 tsp Paprika
1. Mix the pumpkin seeds with paprika, turmeric powder and salt.
- Taste and serve with lemon juice squeezed on top.
Simple watermelon and feta cheese kebabs.
The flavor of watermelon and feta cheese explodes in your mouth. Try it sometime.
Photo and Recipe by Rita Kapadia
1 cup cubed watermelon pieces
1 cup cubed feta cheese
Skewer watermelon cubes and feta cheese cubes alternatively.
The colour of life in the heart of winter . Our pictures were done at a Yalda celebration in the
Photo by Shernaz Cama
International Centre – where the Iranian women did the decorations as well as we had singers with their big drum reciting from the Shahnameh and Rumi / Hafez poems. It was great.
Photo by Shernaz Cama
This little pomegranate boat took me back to my childhood when Granny used to make orange boats in the heat of Ahmedabad.
– Shernaz Cama
Dr Shernaz Cama is the Director of the UNESCO Parzor Project for the Preservation and Promotion of Parsi Zoroastrian Culture and Heritage. In this capacity she has traveled across India recording Oral Traditions an creating awareness of the rich culture and heritage of this community. She has been teaching at the University of Delhi since 1983 and has authored and edited books on a variety of topics ranging from literature to art.
Dr. Cama has been involved with Zoroastrian community affairs for several decades. She has been awarded the Mancherji Edalji Joshi Memorial Trust “Outstanding Contribution Award” and The Federation of Zoroastrian Anjuman’s of India ”Mazda Education Foundation Award” for services to the Zoroastrian community. Deeply interested in promoting interfaith harmony, Dr. Cama is the Zoroastrian member of the International Temple of Understanding, India Chapter.
Since 1999, Rita Jamshed Kapadia, founder of ParsiCuisine.com, has provided recipes, food news, health tips and articles on this website. Recently, Rita has published several Parsi Cuisine cookbooks. Cookbooks are sold on Amazon.com worldwide. Our Parsi Cuisine cookbooks are a labor of love. The cookbooks began in an effort to maintain and preserve our recipes and traditions for the next generation, many of whom have been raised in USA, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Canada and other countries outside of India.