News / Ottawa

Christmas spirit embodied in Iranian Yalda tradition

Yalda is older than Christmas, but shares its spirit, say Iranians who celebrate the Persian winter solstice celebration.

"It's the night of birth or rebirth," said Shahriar Ayoubzadeh, an Iranian of the Baha'i faith who came to Canada in 1987. "In the old tradition they used to celebrate exactly like Christmas with candles in the windows and lights in the house."

Friday, members of Ottawa's 12,000 strong Persian community will celebrate Yalda with family get togethers, a large gathering downtown and the traditional spread of pomegranates, watermelon and mixed nuts.

Yet the celebration's similarities with Christmas don't end there, Ayoubzadeh noted. "When it was a religious ceremony, it used to be a tradition to give gifts. The pomegranate is also essential. Its tiny grains represent 40 lights."

Celebrated with the longest day of the year, usually Dec. 20 or 21, Yalda was founded by the ancient religion of Mithraism, whose believers said it as the birth of Mithra, the Persian angel of light and truth. "When Islam came to Iran, many of the previous religious traditions turned into cultural festivals," he said. "Now Iranians all over the world celebrate it. If you have Iranian friends you will see people congratulating each other on Facebook."

Families stay up throughout the night to get rid of the misfortune that bad spirits bring, said Ayoubzadeh adding that the Persian poet Sa'di wrote "the true morning will not come, until the Yalda Night is gone."

Many Iranian families also celebrate Christmas creating a hybrid celebrations during the holidays. "We do celebrate Christmas,' said Ayoubzadeh, "as part of the Western culture that we're in. But Yalda is a tradition, I believe, that the non-Iranian community isn't aware of."

Ottawa's Iranian community will celebrate Yalda Friday Dec. 21 at La Discoteka at 349 Dalhousie St. from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

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