Zoroastrians of Different Traditions Join in Solstice
Cars streamed steadily into the parking lot of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Vienna, Virginia, passing the sign that listed the times for Christmas Eve services. On December 20, five days before Christmas, the hall of the church was crowded. People walked by the creche, stood next to the light-studded tree, and sat under the banner that proclaimed, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people."
Jasmine Patel, a graduate student from Baltimore, had good tidings to tell: she was describing the night's holiday to a visiting couple.
"Yalda is the celebration of the Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer again," she said. "Our New Year is in March, and this is the first sign of the New Year coming – fruit is a big part of the holiday because it represents spring."
Around her neck hung a pendant depicting bird's wings surrounding the prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster in Greek): the symbol of the Zoroastrian faith, to which Ms. Patel belongs. The couple with whom she spoke, Firoze and Susan Rao of Washington, D.C., were no newcomers to the faith, but the holiday was new to them, for they came from India, where Yalda Night festivities are not held.
Zoroastrianism, once the state religion of the mighty empire of Persia (modern-day Iran), now has fewer than 300,000 followers, most of whom live in Iran and India. Over the centuries, different Zoroastrian traditions have developed different calendars, with the result that Zoroastrians of one ancestry may be unfamiliar with the festivals of others Zoroastrians.
"For those of us from India and Pakistan, this is new," said Shara Godiwalla, a schoolmate of Ms. Patel's. "We don't know anything about this."
The Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington, Inc., one of 21 Zoroastrian associations in North America, is composed of Zoroastrians of different traditions; as a result, said Kersi B. Shroff, president of the association, "We celebrate each other's festivals."
Indeed, the association's first formal Yalda celebration proved so popular that it had to be moved to the church hall from the association's building next door. Out of the 189 families listed in the association's directory, 110 individuals signed up for the festivities. To ensure that everyone in the room understood the significance of the holiday, trustee Orang Demehry gave a short historical introduction.
"How many people here have Christmas trees in their households?" he asked. Very few hands were raised. "Yalda trees?" he asked, and laughter rippled through the room. "That's what you should be having – Yalda trees – because the Christmas tree came from the Yalda tree. During ancient times in Persia, Yalda was symbolized by the evergreen tree. Being straight, upright, and resistant to cold, it was a symbol of hardship – it represented the birth of the sun. During this time, young girls wrapped their wishes in silk cloth and hung them on a tree and decorated it. And it slowly evolved that they put presents under the tree so that their wishes would come true. Still later in Christianity, Pope Leo in the fourth century wanted to destroy this practice. To his misfortune, he was unable to do that, so instead of trying to destroy it, he imitated it. Christ's birthday – which is actually January the sixth and which some people say is in the springtime – he moved to the 25th of December so that it would coincide with Yalda, so that people wouldn't have to change their practices. . . . And yet later, a German Lutheran in the eighteenth century learned of the Yalda tree and he created the Christmas tree. . . .
"Because of our history of Zoroastrianism – Islam having conquered us, the Arabs having come in – we had to go into hiding and we forgot about these traditions, we forgot about Yalda, but in Persia and Iran it was still kept alive. Most of us to this day don't know the deep meaning of Yalda.
"So what do we do at Yalda? At Yalda, we have a get-together like this, try to stay up all night because it is the longest night of the year, read poetry, and eat plenty of fruits."
And sing and dance. As midnight approached on the longest night of the year, Washington's Zoroastrians, of Persian, Indian, and Pakistani ancestry, had spent several hours listening and dancing to Persian music. Firoze and Susan Rao, the couple from India, headed out the door to catch the Metro back to their home, pausing to look back. "Isn't this fun?" said Mrs. Rao.
Washington Feature: How I Spent My Summer Vacation: A Zoroastrian Looks Back on His Priesthood Training. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. When Firoze Rao was a fifteen-year-old living in India, his parents asked him an important question: Did he want to go to the United Kingdom for the summer? or did he want to go to the fire temple and become a priest? (January 1998)
© 1998 Heather Elizabeth