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Shab E Cheleh (Yalda)

Updated on July 13, 2017

Shab E Cheleh or as it is more commonly known, Yalda, is a festival celebrated on the day-night of the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year or the day with the longest night of the year) and it is celebrated in honor of Mithra or the Sun God to usher in the new year which begins on the following day. It is symbolic of birth or rebirth (of the sun) and it coincides with the last day of the Persian month of Azar or the day evil is perceived to be at its peak (because the night is longer on this particular day than any other day of the year).

Before we go further it is worth mentioning that the worship of the sun is a dominant facet or aspect of most agrarian or agricultural communities and that is simply because it is impossible to grow or cultivate any type of crops without the aid and the assistance of the sun.

The Khordeh Avesta gives us an indication of the significance and the importance that is attached to the symbolic worship of the sun and Mithra is represented as a God who is immortal, radiant, swift footed, omniscient and omnipresent.

The following verses give us some indication of the importance that is attached to Mithra. “We praise the immortal, radiant and the swift-footed horse, the Sun. We praise Meher (Meher is a quality of Ahura Mazda that is synonymous to the truth or the face of truth) Yazata of wide pastures (who is) the speaker of true words, the sitter in the assembly, of a thousand ears, well-shaped, ten thousand eyes, the exalted, surveying from a watchtower or a large fortress, brave, sleepless (and) ever-wakeful. We praise (him) the lord of all countries (who is) Meher Yazata, whom Ahura Mazda created as the most glorious of the spiritual Yazatas”.

Shab E Cheleh is a Persian festival and among other things it tells us that the early Persians were an agricultural people. They attached a lot of importance not only to sun but to all matters relating and pertaining to agriculture including the tools, implements and the animals that aided or facilitated agriculture for example the plow, ox and horses.

It is not uncommon to find ceremonies to honor or commemorate all the aforementioned or at the very least include them in the festivities among agrarian communities or societies. So these festivals don’t always just revolve the harvest or the produce.

Interestingly enough the Rig Veda also mentions Mithra. It personifies Mithra in the following manner: – “Mithra, of holy strength, I call upon thee who maketh the oil−fed rite complete. Mithra cherisher and lover of law and through law have thee obtained thy power. Mithra whose ways are firm, thou are a power that none deceives, a god of consecrated might. I call upon thee Mithra to guard us with all aids and to make us exceedingly rich”.

From the above passage, we can adduce that the sun is worshiped not only as a God that ensures bountiful harvest and warehouses full of grains but also as a guardian of the people and as a dispenser of justice.

Mithra is not only symbolic of the sun but also represents all its qualities including its munificent and luminescent rays. The rays of Mithra or the sun are perceived to have therapeutic properties i.e. healing and strengthening powers.

The magical rays of the sun are dispersed to the four corners of the world by Vayu or the wind. Vayu in the Khordeh Avesta is identical to Vayu in the Rig Veda i.e. Vayu is the wind or the wind god.

Shab E Cheleh is also celebrated to symbolize the rebirth of the sun and to usher in the new sun on the following day. The festival is perceived as a victory over the forces of darkness by the forces of light and just exactly how that victory is achieved is transcribed in the Khordeh Avesta.

The spiritual component of Mithra (light) fragments into thousands of individual entities each with an individual soul and with the aid of Vayu (the wind) disperses and displaces all evil.

The following day or the first day of the Persian new month Dey, is dedicated to the worship of Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom, and because the days are now longer than the night, it is deemed that victory has been achieved. The first day of the new month is also celebrated as Deygan.

During the celebrations flames are kept continuously burning, as a symbol of victory, reminiscent perhaps of the Atash Behram or the fire of victory. Fire in both Vedic and Zoroastrian circles signifies purity and righteousness and it is the holiest element in both religions. Anything witnessed or attested to by fire spans an eternity (seven life-times).

The festival is celebrated in a colorful manner that is filled with dance, music, photo presentations, reading of poems and other similar activities that bring out the flavor or the essence of the festival.

Fruits and flowers especially fruits with a reddish or purple hue are also widely used during celebrations including pomegranates and these fruits and flowers are picked and selected to represent and coincide with the reddish-golden hue of Dawn, a Goddess who is synonymous to Yalda.

Now, while we are on the subject of Dawn, it is worth mentioning that she is a Goddess who is mentioned in Rig Veda and that basically means that her worship is very old and that it predates that of more contemporary Goddesses.

Dawn is by no means a conventional Goddess but her worship was nonetheless significant. She is one of the few Goddesses that are described as being blonde haired (light-haired to be precise) and blue-eyed in certain versions of the Riga-Veda and she was regarded or considered to be, according to the ancient religious texts, as one of the four loveliest or prettiest women to grace the earth.

We have to keep in mind that texts like the Rig-Veda and their interpretations are written in an archaic poetic form and a lot depends in the way and manner these texts are translated from Sanskrit.

The worship of Dawn is a novel diversion from the type of worship that is normally associated to texts like the Rig-Veda and the Goddess is worshiped for might, power and opulence, in an unorthodox but simplistic manner.

Her worship to some degree stimulates the imagination and one cannot but help conjure vivid images in one’s mind of great warriors, sitting around a table, drinking mead and feasting on the meat of the beast that dies each day only to be reborn the following morning (Sæhrímnir), in the halls of Valhalla, waiting for Ragnarok.

© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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