Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Chelleh, Nights of Vigilance

Never before have I seen such an uproar over celebrating and assimilating our Iranian holiday such as this year with our Yalda night. Many articles and discussions about its relation to Christmas or tying its origin to Mithra’s birthday have appeared in Iranian circles. It was claimed and confirmed by Google that Yalda, meaning Birth, is in fact a celebration of the birth of the old Iranian Sun God, and was later adopted by Christianity as Jesus' birthday. While driving with our friend Reza to the Persian Tea Room to celebrated Yalda with a group of Iranians, we talked over that topic since I was supposed to give a short talk on it. Reza was even quite willing to abandon the whole idea of Yalda being of Iranian origin rather than giving up its relation to Mithra and Christmas. He thought it might as well be a Roman holiday based on Iranian mythology which was re-adapted by the Iranians.

It seemed that Yalda was the only name that my audience in the Persian Tea Room knew for this holiday. They were a little perplexed when I reminded them there is an Iranian name for this celebration, Chelleh. They were further surprised to hear that this holiday is not only one night but continues for forty blessed nights.

But it was I who was more shocked than anyone else when I found out that I must be too old to know things so ancient that no one else seems to know. One thing I know for sure is that none of our holidays relate to any event or personage at all. (I do not include the anniversary of the revolution or other Islamic celebrations.) They are just celebrations of the arrangements of the cosmos, and very few of them have any further cultural attribute in addition to their cosmological one. Chelleh is one of them.

I think it is mostly the cosmological nature of these holidays which gives them such legitimacy and privileges so that we Iranian never needed to demand, or to provide, further explanation for their existence. However, during my 33 years in the United States, I have observed that the natural legitimacy we used to feel these holidays had are not sustained anymore, with the exception of Naw Rooz the Iranian New Year. This holiday coincides with the first day of Spring, which, as the season of growth, buds, and blossoms, enjoys such a status as a self-explanatory holiday that we were at some point puzzled that January first is the Western New Year. It seems to many of us still that Naw Rooz is a more legitimate New Year than others.

But, the lesser holidays seem do not enjoy this legitimacy fully; we consider them just another occasion for festivity, devoid of their cultural significance. Like everything else which do not have a function, usage, or a meaningful place in life, they become subject to our discretion as to when and how to be used, and if it causes disturbances, we might do without.

To maintain the survival of these national heritages, Iranians in exile have come up with the idea of assimilating their holidays into the closest Western holidays, either in form or meaning or both. For example Mehregan is compared with, and defined, as thanksgiving for the harvest time. Tiregan is quite regularly celebrated on the Fourth of July (at least up to this date.) The same goes with this winter holiday of Yalda, or, as I insist on calling it, Chelleh, which is linked to Christmas.

I think the problem is due to two little words, jashn and Yalda

We translate the word jashn as celebration, which it is not equivalent to a " jubilee", but it is taken as such. The appropriate meaning for both (Jashn and celebration) is “to cherish” “to uphold” but jashn in our old tradition has the slightly more esteemed meaning of “worship.” A glance at the Zoroastrian calendar makes its religious intend clear. If that does not accord with our modern perception of religion, it is definitely due to the nature of theological religions (Islam and Christianity) rather than the mode of worship. It is fair to assume that all the jashns are, in fact, some sort of religious act and therefore bear a religious significance, though different than our concept of “religious significance” in i.e., Islam.

The other problem is due to the use of the name Yalda, and regarding it within the order of Western calendar. We can notice that it reads totally different. Yalda is Aramaic for birth, and occurs within just a few days of Christmas. So, the current link and all the myths surrounding it and the celebration of Mithra's birth appears unavoidable .

But lets call this holiday by its Iranian name, Chelleh, which does not mean birth? And lets see how it is set within the Iranian calender, relevant to the seasonal changes, and also lets look at the component of the details of this celebration, what to eat , etc. After all, why do we need to accord our holiday to the Western calendar? Did our ancestors worry about the adjustment of their holidays to the Western calendar? Did my grandmother in Yazd knew that Mithra’s birthday, or Chelleh, is just "few days to Christmas?"

Let us look back to the old name along with its roots and set it against its original background and setting, namely the Zoroastrian calendar.

We all know that it is the longest night of the year and that we Iranians celebrate this night by gathering together and eating melons and pomegranates and apples and oranges. We know we have inherited this holiday from our Zoroastrian ancestors. But the question is, why we should celebrate the darkest night of the year? Was not darkness the most signal attribute of Ahriman? Is not the darkness, virtually or metaphorically, denounced as evil? Are not we the creation of light? Are we not supposed to denounce whatever is not from the realm of good? Then why should we celebrate this darkness, which has dominated our life and is going to be around for a while (forty days). Why not wait for February 17 when the light starts taking over the dark nights? Would it not be more suitable for a celebration?

Jose Saramago, A Portuguese Noble laureate, in his magnificent book Blindness, describes the evil of darkness. He tells us the story of an imaginary land which undergoes a temporary contagious disease of blindness. People of the region gradually become blind one after the other to the last. Then a period of murder, rape, plunder, exploitation, hunger, dirt, disease and death follows. It is only after they all regain their sight that they realize what horrifying creatures they might become if they would be out of sight and live under the curtain of darkness.

Nor was darkness as metaphor used only in ancient times. We still refer to any evil deeds as taking place in the darkness. We attribute darkness to whatever we do not have access, and consider it very risky when “we operate in the dark”. We hesitate to make uninformed decision and are wary of anything which is not under the light. We still contrast the darkness of the hidden with the light of exposed truth.

For our good religion, it was neither arbitrary nor vain to enshrine light as the most distinguished aspect of divinity and darkness as the most abhorrent elements of the realm of Ahriman. Given all the doctrines of our old religion, it seems very natural to call for vigilance and awareness when facing an approaching evil. It should not be difficult to imagine that wintertime could be used as a natural reminder of that metaphysical and cosmological darkness standing for evil and it should not be difficult to imagine that these long dark nights could be used as a stage to practice and drill what we should do in preparation of defending ourselves when real evil comes.

The world Chelleh, which does not signify birth, could shed light on the ambiguity surrounding this holiday. The word has three meanings: 1) a piece of cord woven separately along with fabric and used to bind together a roll of fabric. 2) The cord of a bow which holds the arrow about to be released. 3) The 40 days of fasting which pious men would observe in the company of elders or priests in a monastery or forest in an isolated place to purify themselves. This practice was common in Manichean tradition and referred to in related literature (Balvahar). It is this tradition which lends itself to the various sects of dervishes’ practice of purification and Moslems’ forty days of mourning.

Setting this holiday, with its Iranian name, against the background of the Zoroastrian calendar (where the holiday originated) with its very distinct cosmological nature, we could very well think of this holiday as a prescription to guard our good kingdom of light and truth against the enemy if the situation arises. Is there any better time to practice our defensive skill than these long dark nights? And is there any other vigilance better than staying awake and alert (eating citrus fruits and melons)? Is there any other protection better than being together, hand in hand? Is there any other way to alarm our enemy, informing them that we are not sleeping, by making noise (e.g., by cracking nuts)? Do we not know that evil spirits are mostly hiding in the woods behind the trees (so that we knock on wood to avoid evil spirits)? Do we not know that evil’s sense of hearing is the sharpest of his senses
(گوش شیطان کر). And what about pomegranates and watermelons? These are two fruits held in esteem by Manicheans for their red lights and seeds inside. And the traditional food? Eggplants are valued for their seeds signifying the mission of spreading the seed of goodness.

I recall how in 1988, when George Bush’s father was elected president there were those who had the foresight to predict the approaching horror, and half of the country was immersed in gloom and doom, Noam Chomsky, in answer to a journalist who asked how we could go through another four years of darkness, said “People should do what they are doing already, getting together, talking, writing, raising their voices to make sure they are heard. They should let their opposite party know their objections.” Whatever we can say about Chomsky, being Zoroastrian is not one of them, but see how close he is to describing our observance of Chelleh nights?


On 2006 when I delivered my talk and wrote this article, I could not imagine that so soon we would have a real Chelleh, that for forty nights and days we should be alert, wise, together, hands in hands, raising our voice, fighting the Darkness.

Dec 19, 2009

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