Around the Yalda table: Two Canadian families share how they mark the Persian winter solstice celebration
Commemorating the longest night with a gathering, poetry, stories and a banquet that positively glows
Given their Persian heritage, sisters Bahareh and Banafsheh Hosseini know how to perfectly extract the arils of a ruby-toned pomegranate. But on Shab-e Yalda, the celebration on the longest night of the year, their father takes over this task. "We invite all our friends and family that night, which means long hours of deseeding pomegranates — which requires a lot of patience, something only my Baba has," says Banafsheh. On this night, until the sun rises, family and friends gather around the table in their Richmond Hill, Ont., home for warmth, poetry, a little bit of fortune-telling and feasting.
The winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, will fall on December 21 this year. It's the night that festivities take place in Persian homes all over Canada and around the world. "We gather that night to protect ourselves from the darkness, to ensure we are together, and to transform it into something warm and beautiful," says Bahareh. Back in Iran, bonfires are often lit on the eve of Shab-e Yalda, and family and friends gather on cushions around the korsi, a short table with a brazier of hot coals placed under it as a source of warmth. While the use of the korsi is not so prevalent in Canada, Persians maintain many of the rituals surrounding Yalda and alter others to suit their new home.
Banafsheh, who now lives in Munich but grew up in Toronto, makes her way home to Canada for the December holidays every year. Being with her family on Shab-e Yalda has been a way for her to feel included in the holiday season, since she didn't grow up celebrating Christmas.
Sisters Bahareh and Banafsheh Hosseini adorn the table with their parents
"When we left Iran for Canada, I brought my Divan-e Hafez with me, which joined the rest of my Baba's collection of [poetry] at our home in Toronto," Bahareh tells me. The Divan-e Hafez, the magnum opus of beloved 14th-century Persian poet Hafez, is often placed alongside an array of treats. On Shab-e Yalda, the table in the Hosseini home glows with candlelight and is dressed in shades of crimson, fuchsia and other deep jewel tones — colours which are said to represent the coming of the dawn. Food, particularly fruit, is laid out in colours to match. Bahareh and Banafsheh help their mother and father prepare the Yalda table every year, placing silver trays, copper bowls and other family heirlooms on a delicately embroidered red termeh (handwoven shawl) and filling them with pomegranates, persimmons, slices of candy-pink watermelon (to represent health and prosperity in the future), dried apricots, figs, white mulberries, nuts, pillowy Turkish delight and more.
Yalda, which means "birth" in the Syriac language, is a festive occasion that can be traced back thousands of years, even predating Zoroastrianism in Persia. It celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and the return of the sun, an idea common to celebrations around the world, from St. Lucia in the Nordic countries to the Chaomos festival of the Kalash tribe in Pakistan all the way to the celebrations at Stonehenge, when pagans, druids and other travellers gather to welcome the first sunrise after the darkest night of the year.
Katayoun Sabet and Mehrdad Ariannejad make time to be around new friends in downtown Toronto
For Persians, the celebration of Yalda is based on the ancient concept of good and evil being akin to light and darkness. It is believed that on the day following the winter solstice, the sun is reborn as it breaks free from the talons of evil. But on the day of Yalda, sunlight hours are the shortest, thus people seek comfort around one another while singing folk songs, storytelling, eating, and sipping on wine or saffron-laced sweet tea. For Toronto's Katayoun Sabet and her husband, Mehrdad Ariannejad, Yalda is a time to be around new friends, since their families live in Iran. "In Canada, where there is so much diversity, Yalda is a celebration we can all enjoy together," says Katayoun.
The real fun on Shab-e Yalda begins with the Persian tradition of consulting Hafez's poems for divination, otherwise known as fal-e hafez. For some, it is playful fortune-telling; for others, it's a serious source of guidance — particularly for those who are having trouble making decisions. The text is in Persian, so it is usually an elder, able to read Persian script, who recites from the book. On this night, someone poses a question or makes a wish, and a random page in the book is opened. A couplet is read and its hidden meaning is open for interpretation. The book is an oracle, and the answers are a metaphor for life and love.
Presuming that younger Persians in the diaspora are less likely to read and write Persian, Banafsheh wonders how the tradition of reading Hafez on Yalda will carry on. "When it is my turn to make a wish and open a page of the Divan-e Hafez, I [often] hesitate to read it out loud and end up passing it over to the elderly," she says. "But when I hear it being recited, I make sure to listen as closely as possible to learn as much as I can in this moment, so I can carry on this tradition to the next generation."
Shab-e Yalda is also a time for indulging in some singing. "We invite our friends over, and Mehrdad plays the piano and sings folk songs popularized by Sima Bina," Katayoun shares with me. As she mentions the famous Persian singer's name, it reminds me of the patriarch in my family. Bina was born in the city of Birjand, part of the province of South Khorasan in Iran. Many years ago, my great-great-grandfather, Syed Nadir Ali Shah, travelled from his home in the Khorasan region to present-day Pakistan as a Pir, or Sufi saint, to spread the Sufi word. After falling in love with a girl in Lahore, he married her, and ended up spending the rest of his life there. That girl was my great-great-grandmother. I had always heard about my Iranian ancestry from my father, but it wasn't until I moved to Toronto that I started to become more curious about the beauty of that side of my lineage. By that time, my beloved grandmother, whom I called Mader, was long gone, and with her, many of the stories about Syed Nadir Ali Shah.
My journey into my Persian ancestry began a decade ago, but it's an ongoing one. Katayoun says, "Shab-e Yalda is not exclusive to one culture; it is for everyone." One December soon, my sisters Fatima and Maria and I will gather with our Baba, who reads Persian beautifully, to recite couplets from Divan-e Hafez to us on Shab-e Yalda. As an homage to our great-great Persian grandfather, I am sure we will be able to keep the candle flame alive until the sun rises after the longest night of the year, surrounded by loved ones.