The Iranian Yalda And The Fateful Choice Of Light Over Darkness

Just a few days ago was the longest night of the year. Another way of looking at is that this was night in which the tide of darkness began to turn back in favor of light. Bunched around this time are so many ancient holidays of lights and candles, of which Hanukah and Christmas are but two. Ancient rabbinic tradition suggests that the purpose of the small light at night is to teach that it takes only the light of one individual candle to illuminate the darkness of an entire room—or the world.

Peering at small lights at night, meditating on them, also has another interesting impact. It makes the blinding light of the morning sun feel almost miraculous. Indeed, many of the pre-monotheistic nighttime celebrations of light at this time of year are actually celebrations of the birth of light, and particularly sunlight. There is an inescapable reality to the absolute attachment of all of terrestrial life to our sun. We are racing through time and space with this glorious little star that is a small light in the dark of an endless universe, every bit as tiny, lonely, noble and courageous as a small candle in the dark.

This year Hanukkah coincided with Yalda, which is a major Iranian holiday going back thousands of years, well before Islam and Christianity. Yalda is celebrated by all the religious and ethnic groups of Iran, and, shockingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which places the word “Islamic” on just about everything, has allowed this holiday to be considered official, a national treasure of the country. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where everything from a Christmas tree to Sufi Muslim holy sites and graves are repressed at best, here in Iran, the West’s enemy #1, a universal holiday of light has been allowed to persist. This is due to its massive popularity, and to the fact that throughout Iran the people made it clear that they would tolerate no removal of such a beloved experience.

Yalda celebrates rebirth in the midst of winter’s death, the victory of light over darkness, a victory on the very day in the calendar when at last light will once again begin a steady gain on darkness. There are bonfires, there are symbolic meals celebrating special dried and fresh fruits, there is great music and dance, there are special lights, of course, and there is family celebration. It is as beloved as Christmas, only universally celebrated by many ethnic and religious groups.

Yalda is a Syriac word meaning ‘birth’, but yalda is the Hebrew Biblical name for daughter, dating back to at least a thousand BCE.  The Hebrew ho’lid is ‘gave birth”. The later Aramaic word for the first appearance of the new moon is “molad”, the exact moment when the new moon appears, but literally, the birth every month of the new moon. This is precise moment that has been announced every month in traditional Jewish synagogues for thousands of years, and that is why every traditional Jew has grown up with the words resonating in his ears, “And the molad this month is….”

The more we delve into what connects us all on this planet the more eerie it gets, and the more absurd the pervasive extinction of war becomes. Imagine an exchange of chemical weapons between Iran and Israel–a distinctly possible result of the downward spiral of confrontations right now. Imagine this breaking out on Yalda and Hanukkah, while masses of families are gathered to celebrate the victory of the forces of light over darkness–in both places–even as their weapons systems destroy all those thousands of innocent families. This is the obscenity of war.

When will the intimate cultural, even mystical, ties of the Middle and Near East translate into real relationships that emerge victorious over the darkness of political, military and economic cannibalism? This is an open question that will only be answered by the future, a future that is being born every day inside the choices we each make to hide behind dubious military shields, or to engage in the arduous work of people-to-people relations, the only true source of an illuminated and enlightened world.

© Marc Gopin