By Jeff Mallinson –
We celebrate Christmas around the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is a time when our ancestors had to remind themselves of an age old promise that the light would not go out permanently, and that the light would soon return. The problem is, however, that this long night in December is not right in the middle of winter, but comes—for those of us in the northern hemisphere—when most of us are bracing for much colder times. For this reason, as many of us are feeling a post-Christmas melancholy, we ought to rethink the significance Christmas day for our families. We ought to think of it not as the finale or culmination of celebration, but as the beginning, a time to steel ourselves as we face the winter that is coming.
I discussed this topic with on this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, entitled “,” and we touched on an interesting holiday that takes place on December 21; a Persian friend of mine told me about. It is called Yalda Night or Shab-e Chelleh (Night of Forty). It commemorates the longest night, but also a hope (common to pre-Islamic Persian Zoroastrianism) that the light will ultimately conquer the darkness. Most celebrate the night by getting together with family, staying up all night, eating red foods like watermelon and pomegranate, and reading from Persian poets like .
Upon hearing about this, I thought there might be elements to this celebration that a Christian might incorporate into the Christmas season. I was particularly struck by the word “Yalda” which sounds like the Germanic season of Jule and Yuletide. Perhaps, I speculated, there was a common pagan source for both the Persian and Nordic terms. On this little-known topic, many speculate that the cult of Mithra is behind everything, but this may not be the case. Though I can’t find any strong academic evidence for it, online sources routinely mention a possible early Christian influence. It is said that Western Persian people adopted some traditions from Nestorian Christians who used the word Yalda, which literally means “birth” in the Middle Aramaic dialect of Syriac, as a general term for Christmas (like we often use “Nativity” today.)
Whatever the origins of Yalda, here’s what I think all families should consider adapting these days: the art of steeling ourselves as loving families and communities. Yalda is about hope for the future, but it does not ignore the cold darkness on the horizon. It is more like a pep talk before a big game than the celebration after a playoff victory. We gather together, remembering the light, and reminding each other that the darkness will not prevail. In light of this light, we face the darkness. Thus, we should not be surprised when we get down this time of year. We expect it, but we don’t let sadness or despair win.
I’m not a knee-jerk doom and gloom guy, when it comes to the overall direction of the future. I do believe that ecological degradation is much worse than we want to admit, and we will have to get past our politicizing of environmental issues before we can start cleaning things up. I don’t believe radical Islam will prevail in the long run. I don’t think a nuclear war with Russia or China is likely. But I do believe that the next few years will be challenging. Socially, we are reconfiguring all sorts of things. The US political cycle will likely be filled with unpleasantries and anger between citizens. The housing market, if I am to believe , may be on the verge of another big dip. Young adults aren’t quite sure how to fit into the economy these days, and several older adults are worrying that their jobs might become obsolete, due to technological changes.
All of this means we need to be vigilant. We need to find support in family and friends who share our commitment to goodness, truth and beauty. We need to take time to reflect, hold loved ones tightly, celebrate, eat, and—above all—steel ourselves for the coming winter. We do this with confidence, because we confess that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5, ESV).
—The Wayfaring Stranger