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PRAJWALA DIXIT: Special holidays — from Yuletide to Yalda

A traditional platform with books of Hafez, watermelon, pomegranate, rose cakes and a wide assortment of nuts.
A traditional platform with books of Hafez, watermelon, pomegranate, rose cakes and a wide assortment of nuts. - Prajwala Dixit

From statutory holidays to stores, a need exists to recognize multicultural celebrations, including Yalda

This weekend, the sounds of Hafez’s words and the strings of the tar are echoing across the Atlantic waters.

Nutty and earthy aromas are wafting in the air, tantalizing the taste buds, and the eyes are beholding korsis laden with watermelons, pomegranates, rose cakes and rich Persian literature. 

Yalda celebrations are in full swing in eastern Canada, uniting people of all faiths for a night of revelry and cheer. 

Dr. Iraj Fooladi, who has called Nova Scotia home for 38 years, has seen the Iranian community grow leaps and bounds in the region over the last few decades, beautifully brought together by ancient traditions such as Yalda. 

“Yalda means ‘birth’… It is said that evil forces are dominant on the longest night of the year. So, you stay up all night in the company of friends and family and benefit from the safety of being in a group to pass the night,” said Dr. Fooladi. 

A big part of the night is dedicated to reading poetry from Hafez, strumming the tar and enjoying rich foods such as Fesenjoon and Zereshk Polo Ba Morgh. Much like other festivities, this, too, leads to an occasion for families, friends and communities to congregate and enjoy each other’s company. 

The Iranian Cultural Society of Nova Scotia and Memorial University’s Iranian Student Association work hard to keep this tradition alive in Eastern Canada. This year, MUN’s Iranian Student Association hosted 140 guests at the city hall in St. John’s, many of whom, like the Rafieiazad family, were celebrating their first Yalda and Christmas in Canada, a prospect that made five-year-old Arina Rafieiazad’s eyes light up with excitement.

Arina Rafieiazad and her father, from Tehran, Iran, celebrate their first Yalda in St. John's organized by the MUN Iranian Students' Society. - Prajwala Dixit
Arina Rafieiazad and her father, from Tehran, Iran, celebrate their first Yalda in St. John’s organized by the MUN Iranian Students’ Society. - Prajwala Dixit

“My favourite part are the presents … We dance, eat yummy food and I get a new dress and toys,” said Arina.

Both organizations believe that such gatherings help amplify social cohesion among a variety of community groups. They said that because many arrive here without a family, events of this nature allow Iranians, Canadians, Afghanis and Azerbaijanis, among others, to partake in the festivities, which helps increase a sense of belonging to the place they choose to call home.  

Organizing such events for several years is Atousa Constandi, from Halifax, who has been in Canada for 21 years, who said that events like this help decrease home sickness when away from near and dear ones. 

She noted the inherent similarities between Yalda and Christmas — from the red and green colours to the gatherings — but said that major differences arise from the lack of a familial environment, as well as what the stores sell at this time of the year. 

“It’s different here. In Iran, two weeks before Yalda night, the market, they are selling Yalda items — food, decorations, clothes, special types of nuts,” she said, indicating that major stores in the region are yet to make space for such Yalda-specific items. She also pointed out that in Iran, Christmas trees are decorated with pomegranates to symbolize the unison of two cultures. 

Dr. Fooladi recognized that there has been a gradual change in the markets. Some special herbs that he would need, for the food cooked as part of the celebration or otherwise, previously needed to be ordered from Toronto but are now available in local stores. However, he indicated that there is space for more growth. 

“The stores need to recognize there is a need here … somebody should tell them that there is a demand for this sort of product,” he said. 

In addition to diversity in produce and products in stores, both Dr. Fooladi and Costandi said that they would like if Yalda were reflected in the statutory holidays, in celebrations inside schools and in other spheres of the social and cultural fabric of Canada, a place they have called home for multiple decades, echoing what both Yalda and Christmas stand for: a time of unity, of oneness and of belonging. 

Prajwala Dixit is an Indian-Canadian engineer, journalist and writer in St. John’s who writes a regional column for the SaltWire Network. When she isn’t engineering ways to save the world, she can be found running behind her toddler, writing and volunteering. Follow her and reach her at @DixitPrajwala. 

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