top of page

Source: Iranintl

Dec 22, 2023

As Iranians Celebrate Pre-Islamic Festival, Clerics Back Down

By Maryam Sinaee

A British Iranian journalist and political analyst and a regular contributor to Iran International

Authorities in Iran have resorted to marking the pre-Islamic Winter Solstice festival to placate the people angered by economic crisis and corruption scandals.

Iranian media reported in November that the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (SCCR) had renamed certain events on the official calendar including the pre-Islamic winter Festival of Yalda, which millions of Iranians celebrate on the night of December 21 when winter begins.

The council which is tasked with neutralizing non-Islamic cultural influences and ideologies, among other things, had decided that the day of the Winter Solstice be referred to as "Day of Promoting the Culture of Hosting and Connecting with Relatives” in the calendar.

Family of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, remembering their daughter on the longest night of the year. 

Many believed that this irrelevant name was an onslaught on the deep-rooted culture and customs of Iranians.

Iran's religious establishment and hardliners often refer to ancient festivals as "pagan" calendar events and sometimes even demand that they should be banned. But despite endless religious propaganda, ancient traditions appear to have gained more popularity since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Sanandaj bazaar in southwestern Iran at Yalda night (December 21, 2023)

In defiance of the regime, social media users vowed to celebrate their beloved festivals such as Yalda, which they celebrate with family and friends, with even more splendor and merry-making this year, and shared numerous jokes about the lengthy new names assigned to their cherished festivals.

Municipality billboard in Tehran Honoring Yalda

The public's reaction to the renaming of the ancient festivals was so strong that the Council's spokesman, Abbas Mirza Hosseini, had to deny the removal of the names of ancient festivals from the official calendar. He claimed that the new names were only complementary and emphasized the "national identity and Islamic-Iranian culture and civilization."

In the past few days, presumably in response to such criticism, IRIB, which has a monopoly on broadcasting in the country, has shown unprecedented interest in the celebration of Yalda. It has also aired some Yalda entertainment programs including one with stand-up comedian Hassan Reyvandi who had been persona non grata at IRIB for some time.

The municipality of Tehran and some other cities also displayed an unprecedented interest in honoring Yalda. A massive billboard in Tehran’s Vali Asr Square congratulated citizens for Yalda and municipality trucks decorated with balloons and mascots played music on the streets.

The family of a victim of last year’s protests, Erfan Khazaei, celebrated Yalda at his grave.

The celebration of Yalda on the night of Winter Solstice and the Iranian New Year (Nowrouz) on the day of Spring Equinox both date to ancient, pre-Islamic times. The non-Islamic Nowrouz is still the main calendar event for most Iranians. The strength of the Nowrouz tradition is such that even the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei makes a televised speech on that day.

Iranians send each other millions of text messages to congratulate Yalda just as they do on Nowruz, and increasingly more in recent years, Christmas and western New Year.

“I do not understand the resistance that some [in the religious and political establishment] show against elements that build culture and a sense of national identity,” former government spokesman, reformist politician and sociologist Ali Rabiei wrote in a commentary in Etemad newspaper Thursday entitled “The Indelible Yalda”.

Rabiei opined that introducing a new name for the festival in the calendar was an attempt to obscure the festival’s ancient roots through “historical transformation”. He also urged the regime to stop “engineering cultural calendar events”.

“The pressure of the people and public opinion has forced the Islamic regime to retreat repeatedly in the past 44 years in trying to ban music, short-sleeved clothes, video players, satellite TV, Yalda night, even Nowruz … Don't underestimate your power,” a tweet said.

bottom of page