Yal-dá is a winter solstice festival that was celebrated by the ancient iranians/aryans as a religious Zoroastrian festival. The festival is celebrated at the exact moment of the winter solstice, and is determined by the Avestan calendar. In Iran today, despite of the advent of Islam, Yal-dá is still celebrated widely. Yal-dá is and has always been the most popular festival after “nauv-raúz” or vernal equinox among the iranian people.
It is a time when friends and family gather together to eat, DRINK and read POETRY until well after midnight. The night of the winter solstice or “šab-e yal.dā” is an occasion for special ceremonies. This night is considered to be a magically potent night.In most parts of greater Iran the extended family gather around and enjoy a fine dinner. Many varieties of fruits, nuts and sweetbreads especially prepared or kept for this night are served. In some areas it is believed that forty varieties of edibles should be served during the ceremony of the night. Pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant. Watermelons are especially kept from summer for this ceremony. It is believed that consuming watermelons on this eve will ensure the health and well-being of the individual by protecting him from falling victim to excessive cold/heat or disease produced by hot humors.
Furthermore, the RED color in pomegranates and watermelons symbolizes the crimson hues and SPLENDOR of DAWN. After dinner the older individuals entertain the others by TELLING them TALES. Another favorite and prevalent pastime of the night is DIVINATION by the Hāfez poetry (fāl-e Hāfez). It is a widely practiced pre-islamic custom for Iranian families to have a kind of reunion on the longest eve of the year. For in the Zoroastrian/Aryan tradition, the winter solstice is particularly auspicious, and prescribed rituals tend to assure good fortune and the overcoming of difficulties. Observing the splendor of the dawn after the longest night of the year, is a pre-islamic formula prescribed in connection with this night that is specially auspicious, and here comes the Mithraic connection.
“Mithra,” the most brilliant of the adorable, divine/brilliant beings is closely associated with the rising sun, the glory of the dawn, and the pleasant light of the early morning hours. However, there is not ONE single reference in the entire Zoroastrian lore, be it Avesta, ancient Avestan commentaries or the entire middle iranian/pahlavi literature; about the supposed birth of Mithra on the eve of the winter solstice,. It is important to add that in Zoroastrianism ahuric powers/virtues/qualities such as “Mithra,” are “apaöúrvím” or without beginning. There is a very very thin line between divine names and adorable virtues/angels/yazatás in Zoroastrianism.
In addition, the Avestan name for the Month covering the time period of the solstice or December 20- January 20, is “daðváw/dathúshö,” farsi “Day.” The Avestan name means the “giver of gifts,” “bestower of talents/powers.” In the civil Achaemenid calendar this month is called “a-nāma-ka,” month of the nameless/GD. It is the most festive month of the year according to the Avestan calendar, with the most number of festivals. Furthermore, the month dedicated to Mithra covers the period between late September till late October in the religious Zoroastrian calendar.
Hence, the commonly held belief that “Yal-dá” is of aramaic origin, referring to the so-called birth of “Mithra;” is in my opinion unsubstantiated, and without any credible evidence. Why should Iranians adopt a semitic name for their second most beloved pre-islamic festival, while ALL other pre-islamic festivals have kept their indigenous indo-european names???
I believe that the word “Yalda” is derived from the Avestan “Yaar,” namely YEAR, Dutch jaar, German Jahr, Gothic jer, Old Church Slovanic jaru. In Avesta, YAAR or YEAR also means “COLD SEASON.” A comparison with the Farsi word for year or “cál” is helpful. The Avestan root of of the farsi “cál” or year is “cared.” Avestan “cared” means “cold, cold season, winter.” Compare Old English “cald,” Germanic “kaldaz,” O.S. kald, Old High German kalt; from Proto Indo European base “kál-/cál,” cold, coldness. In addition, the other common name for solstice in farsi, “chelle” seem to support the notion of “cold/coldness” associated with the eve of the winter solstice.
I should add that the SECOND MOST FESTIVE Zoroastrian Thanksgiving Festival is called “MAID-YAAR” or mid-year/mid winter. The importance of this festival as “the second most important festival” is cited throughout ancient Avesta and later middle Iranian/pahlavi literature. We read in “áfringan gahan-bár” or the “Avestan blessing formulas” associated with seasonal thanksgiving celebrations, verse 11: “In the case that a person does not celebrate “MAID-YAAR,” he/she must be expelled from among the community of the Mazda worshippers.”
Avestan “MAID” means “middle,” “midmost,” and “MAID-YAAR” alludes to the heart of cold/winter. “MAID-YAAR” is celebrated on Jan 4th. From the WINTER SOLSTICE/Yal-dá around Dec 20th till Jan 4th or “MAID-YAAR” is about 2 weeks. Notice the very similar 12 days span between CHRISTMAS and EPIPHANY. Epiphany is when the 3 Zoroastrian MAGIS visited the Christ child.
A Comparison with the Germanic winter festival of “Yule” or “Yule-tide” is most interesting. “Yule,” also called in Icelandic “Jól” was an indigenous “winter solstice/midwinter” festival celebrated by the pre christian scandinavians and other Germanic people. Terms with an etymological equivalent to “Yule” are still used in the Nordic Countries for the Christian Christmas.
In chapter 55 of the Prose Edda book Skáldskaparmál, or “language of poetry” the term “Yule” is quoted, which reads: “Again we have produced Yule-being’s feast [MEAD of POETRY], our rulers’ eulogy, like a bridge of masonry.”
“Yule” was originally celebrated from LATE DECEMBER to EARLY JANUARY on a date determined by the Lunar Germanic calendar. The etymological line of the word “Yule,” is uncertain. Yet, the Estonian “jõul” seem to provide the key. Pre Christian Estonians believed that one’s behaviour in the times of “jõul” determined the good fortune of oneself and the whole household. Estonian “jõul,” were sacred days marking THE END OF ONE CYCLE/SEASON and the beginning of the new one. The etymology of YEAR in all indo-european languages, including Avestan YAAR also suggests the “COMPLETION OF A CYCLE.”
All these winter solstice/mid-winter festivals suggest an ancient aryan origin. In about 40 days from the eve of the winter solstice or about January 30th, the great fire festival of “caredá” or “cadä” concludes the COLD SEASON celebrations.
Bibliography : Enjavī, Jašnhā o ādāb o moʿtaqadāt-e zemestān, 2 vols., Tehran, 1352 Š./1973. M. Pāyanda, Āʾīnhā wa bāvardāšthā-ye mardom-e Gīl o Deylam, Tehran, 2535 = 1355 Š./1976. ʿA.-R. Ṣafīpūrī, ʿAqāyed o rosūm-e mardom-e Ḵorāsān, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1363 Š./1984. Orchard, Andy (1997). Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. Cassel. Orel, Vladimir (2003). A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden. Simek, Rudolf (2007) translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology.