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Iran state TV belatedly celebrates traditional Yalda Night for the first time

The move to air the Persian winter solstice celebration is an attempt to project calm as the country is racked by protests, analysts say
An Iranian vendor posing presents a slice of watermelon at Argentina Square in Tehran on 21 December 2013, in preparation for the annual festival of Yalda (AFP)

For the first time, Iranian state TV has dedicated hours of programming to the traditional Yalda Night celebration, in what experts have interpreted as an attempt to project normalcy as protests rack the nation.

Yalda Night, which falls on 21 or 22 December every year, is the ancient Persian celebration of winter solstice. Iranians gather with family to feast on local delicacies, particularly fruit.

In an unprecedented move last month, state TV aired programmes featuring famous athletes and cinema stars, running live shows with celebratory music and traditional decorations, pomegranates and watermelons.

'This is a public relations strategy to try to make the regime seem benevolent and accepting'

- Samira Rajabi, University of Colorado, Boulder

Authorities have violently repressed protests sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini on 16 September, with hundreds of families mourning the loss of their loved ones this Winter Solstice, tamping down celebrations.

“This year, it made sense that people chose not to celebrate or to do so quietly, and respectfully. The country is in mourning. It’s furiously grieving,” said Neda Toloui-Semnani, an author and senior writer with Vice News Tonight.

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By airing the Yalda Night broadcasts, “the government is, I suspect, sending a message that life is going on as usual, when everyone knows it’s not. A tone-deaf overcorrection that might reassure regime supporters, but will certainly further alienate others,” she told Middle East Eye.

For Nahid Siamdoust, an assistant professor in media and Middle East studies at the University of Texas at Austin, the shows were “part of the state’s attempts to wash over the grief and mourning among Iranians, which it has caused by its killing of hundreds of people, many of them children or very young, and to normalise the state of affairs and pretend all is well.

“They will use all means to create a greater illusion of their legitimacy, but this is all too little and too late,” she told MEE. “It’s a utilitarian move for their purposes of survival.”

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Like most national celebrations rooted in Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage, Yalda has been mostly marginalised by the Islamic Republic.

Since the 1979 revolution, manifestations of Persian culture, such as Nowruz, have been smeared as superstitious in an attempt to focus public attention on the nation’s Islamic identity.

The government has however shown a sporadic willingness to embrace the practices in a vain attempt to bridge the gap between the establishment and disillusioned Iranians, many of whom are attached to the country’s ancestral past.

“This is a public relations strategy to try to make the regime seem benevolent and accepting,” said Samira Rajabi, an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“In airing Yalda celebrations, state TV and by extension the government can first pretend that Iranian citizens are not continuing to protest in anger, and also try to frame themselves as accepting of a multitude of celebrations, even those not steeped in Islam,” she told MEE.

A millenia-old tradition

Earlier this year, Yalda Night was added to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

An observance of the longest night of the year, Yalda is a Syriac word meaning “birth”, marking the birth of the Iranian deity of light, Mithra. The celebration is believed to date back to the pre-Zoroastrian era, in the 4th millennium BCE.

Like the festival of Persian New Year, Yalda centres on family gatherings, poetry recitals, gift-giving, philanthropy and paying tribute to the elderly. Families share sweets and meals from Iran’s various subcultures, a celebration of the craftsmanship of the country’s ethnic minorities.

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