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writing for godot

Happy Yaldā Night! Solstice 2018

Written by Zepp Jamieson   
Thursday, 20 December 2018 06:57

December 20th, 2018

Well, I hoped he would be in prison by now, too. But the walls are closing in, and at this point, it’s a matter of “when,” and for how long, and how many others will be in adjacent cells. He’s going down.

See? You feel hopeful already, don’t you? Well, this is the Solstice Essay, and that’s the whole point of the thing.

So let’s talk about trippy Solstice stuff.

They celebrate the winter Solstice in Iran. I was a bit surprised, because the whole place is south of 40 north, going all the way down to 21 north. While winters in the mountains of Iran can be fierce, and sometimes downright Canadian, most of the country has a fairly wide range of climate, but with fairly mild winters—no worse than, say, Tennessee. If anything, the place is known for its heat, with temperatures often well above 120 in the height of summer.

And it’s sort of equatorish. It doesn’t do midnight suns, and the long winter nights might go 14 hours instead of 20. Nobody is going to mistake it for Sweden.

The government is religious bordering on nuts, and the people are secular, bordering on sane. It suggests that celebrations, even of natural events, might have the sort of tension built in that the Christmas defenders at Faux News can only dream about. But apparently their winter Solstice is free of such. Oh—don’t let the religious police get wind of your wine and beer stash. That wouldn’t be cool.

On the night of the winter solstice, they have the Shab-e-Yaldā (“Yaldā Night”) or sometimes, Shab-e-Chelleh, “Night of Forty”. Shades of Ali-Baba! It isn’t celebrated in Ali-Baba’s home turf, Saudi Arabia, but it is big in Iran, most Kurdish regions, and most of the old Soviet breakaway -Stans.

“Chelleh” means 40, or fortieth. It’s a number that pops up pretty often in writings of the Biblical era, including, of course, the Bible. It’s generally taken to mean, “Nobody’s quite sure how long or big it was, but it was a fair old bit.” They have winter (and summer) divvied up into forty day periods, in a complicated system that suggest that their calendar scheduling was Lent to them by the Catholics. Rather than try to describe it, and thus reaffirming I have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll just quote from Wikipedia: “There are all together three 40-day periods, one in summer, and two in winter. The two winter periods are known as the ‘great Chelleh’ period (Day to Bahman,[rs 2] 40 full days), followed/overlapped by the ‘small Chelleh’ period (Bahman to Bahman,[rs 2] 20 days + 20 nights = 40 nights and days). Shab-e Chelleh is the night opening the ‘big Chelleh’ period, that is the night between the last day of autumn and the first day of winter.”

Got it? Good. Now explain it to me.

I’m enchanted with the notion of big and little 40s. I can’t help but wonder if there is a medium 40, which is maybe 38-42.

Yaldā is even more fun. It seems that back in the fifth century, a sect of early Nestorian Christians fled to Iran, escaping religious persecution. Their word for ‘birth’ was, as you might have guessed, ‘yaldā.’ Iran then, as now, had the philosophy of dhimma, that they must be protective of minority religions and customs within their own land. They gave the Nestorians sanctuary and freedom. Didn’t help.

The Nestorians did what religionists absolutely love to do, and tore themselves apart over minutiae of doctrinal differences, but before imploding, decided that since the Annunciation was in spring, that meant the birth of Jesus was in early winter, and made Yaldā the regional word that equates to “Christmas.”

There is another word, “yelda” which, while spelled differently in English, is the same in Aramaic. Yelda means “dark night” or “long night.”

Yelda may have migrated from northern Europe, where it is pronounced “yule.”

Hmm. Start of winter, associated with birth and long dark nights, and yule. Oh, and the Christians swiped it. OK, it’s Solstice, all right.

A Viking probably would easily recognize the tone of Yaldā. People gather against the darkness and the forces of evil (“Ahriman”) and tell tales and jokes and recite poetry, and eat the best of the summer crop, mostly fruits. The foods eaten on that particular night have special properties; eating watermelon won’t do anything in particular on Yaldā night, but will protect you from heat exhaustion later on in the summer. Magic watermelons, at least on Solstice night. Some fruits and vegetables protect against insect bites, and garlic prevents rheumatism. In a lot of areas, contraband stashes of wine and beer are consumed, and lights are arrayed in the living areas.

It’s the evening of the 19th as I write this, and I’m in the southern part of California. It’s nearly full dark, but I can still see palms silhouetted against the sky. I was moping a bit, missing the snow and cold that to me is the hallmark of the winter Solstice. But this year, there is no snow where I live—the forth time in the past five years that’s happened—and while it’s cold up there, it’s satisfyingly nippy down here. So I’m not missing Solstice. Not really. It isn’t just winter, as the Iranians show.

I’ll have something nice for Solstice dinner and call family and friends.

And a rocket launch from nearby Vandenberg was scrubbed, and they have rescheduled for the night of...Solstice. Nothing like a bright light in the longest night to celebrate!

Reading that Solstice is celebrated, with its true meaning, in the dry and dusty lands of Persia, cheered me right up. How can you not like people who gather against the long darkness, and tell jokes and sing and enjoy food and drink and dream of a brighter future?

It’s what I hope we’re are all doing on Solstice night.

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