As the world’s largest and most populous continent, Asia is home to a wide range of cultures and religions. Different celebrations occur here during this period which often dates back millenia. Because of this wide variety, this article will focus on specific parts of Asia.
The variety of religions and cultures in Asia means that there are several different winter celebrations. However, many countries, such as Muslim-majority ones, do not have specific holidays associated with the season. While certain Islamic holidays may collide with this period, they do not connect to the season per se—the Islamic calendar is lunar, meaning holidays rotate all around the year.
In countries with a vast diversity of religions and customs, such as India, winter celebrations highly depend on the region. For instance, although Christians only make up 2.4 percent of the population in India, Christmas is a national holiday celebrated on December 25th.
Arguably the largest celebration across the region is the Chinese New Year. In China, the “Lunar New Year” is the most significant holiday during this time of year. It lasts for 15 days and starts at different times of the year depending on the beginning of the new moon every 354 days. Beginning with the first new moon and ending with the full moon of the lunar calendar, it is celebrated to give luck and prosperity for the upcoming year.
On the Western side of the continent, there is another celebration called Yaldā Night (shab-e yalda) or Chelleh Night (shab-e chelle). While the holiday is celebrated in several Muslim-majority countries, this is a Persianate holiday related to the Zoroastrian religion. It is a winter solstice celebration traditionally viewed as “the victory of light over the darkness” and the birth of the sun-god Mithra. Yalda is celebrated mainly in Iran and Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Tajikistan and Turkey. On this night, friends and family gather to eat, drink and read poetry until past midnight.
In Israel and among other Jewish minorities across Western Asia, such as in Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia, Hanukkah is the main holiday celebrated during this time. Hanukkah is Hebrew for “dedication”, and is based on the story of the menorah (a candelabra) in the Second Temple of Jerusalem that burned for eight days despite only having a single day’s supply of oil. According to the story, the temple had just been rededicated to God following the Maccabean Revolt, where Jews rose to defeat the much larger Greek-Syrian army that oppressed them. It was seen as a miracle, and thus, the tradition of Hanukkah was born. It is celebrated for eight nights and can occur from late November to mid-December.
Depending on the region in China, there are different traditions to follow during the Lunar New Year holidays. The common factor is that the new near is celebrated with family gatherings, rituals, ceremonies, enormous feasts and honoring of one’s ancestors. The food also differs from one region to the other.
The celebrations are often inspired by various myths and legends. Indeed, the New Year’s tradition is based on the old legend of the monster “Nian” meaning “year”, which would attack towns and feast on human flesh. Hence, in order to frighten the monster, the new year is celebrated with fireworks and red decorations, as Nian is said to be afraid of noise and the colour red. Children are also given red purses with money for luck and prosperity.
The Chinese New Year ends with the Lantern Festival, which occurs at the full moon and is held to honor deceased ancestors and to promote reconciliation, peace and forgiveness. Glowing lanterns are seen in temples and across cities and towns. During the festival there are also parades, featuring a colorful and extravagant dancing dragon which symbolises fortune. Food is naturally an important component of the festivities, including “Tangyuan”, a type of rice balls.
The Lantern Festival is believed to date back to the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), when lanterns would be lit lightened by Buddhist monks in honour of the Buddha. A legend of the festival’s origins tells the story of the Jade Emperor (You Di), who was upset with a town for having killed his goose. As revenge, he planned to burn down the town, but a fairy had warned the people and advised them to light lanterns across the town. This would trick the Emperor into thinking that the town was already burning, and the town was spared. Since this day, lanterns have been lit every year to commemorate this event.
Yalda is the longest and darkest night of the year according to the Iranian solar calendar, corresponding to the 20th or 21st of December. Yalda marks the first night of the upcoming forty-day period of the three-month winter, from which the term Chelleh (fortieth) derives. The word Yalda is a borrowed word from Syriac-speaking Christians who moved to Iran in the 1st century CE in search of protection from persecution. In Syriac, Yalda means “birth” and was the Syriac Christian word for Christmas. Over time, the two names became synonymous in Persian.
The origins of Yalda night go back to Zoroastrianism. According to the story, the evil forces of Ahriman (the devil) were at their peak during this dark night. Therefore, people would stay awake for most of the night and spend it with loved ones in order to protect each other from misfortune. This tradition dates back to 2500 years ago.
In the olden days, people used to gather around a table (Korsi) with a firepot underneath it. They would put nuts and fruits on the table and snack on them throughout the night while listening to stories and poems told by the elderly. Still today, this type of gathering prevails. The most significant fruits are watermelon and pomegranate, since these are considered to bring people a healthy upcoming year. Drinking, eating and reading poems continue well past midnight.
Although Yalda is the dominant winter holiday of Iran, there are other holidays celebrated by religious minorities as well. Hanukkah is for example celebrated by Iran’s Jewish minority, and Christian minorities celebrate Christmas—Catholics in December, and Armenians on January 6th. During this time, the red and green colors of Yalda celebrations and Christmas bring a joyful atmosphere to cities and towns across Iran.
Samaneh Mohseni and Lucile Corcoran