31/12/2017 I wondered if this should be the first item on my list – after all, according to the astrological calendar, it is the first day of the season. But it is not the first sign of winter; and this year, oblivious of our prescribed arrival and departure dates, winter appeared well before the solstice.
I have a particular connection to the winter solstice: it is the meaning of my name. Yalda, meaning ‘birth of the sun’, is a Persian festival celebrated on the longest night of the year with poetry and food – in particular pomegranate and watermelon, whose colours symbolise dawn and the glow of life. Interestingly, I have only just learnt that the origin of the name, literally meaning ‘birth’, was the Syriac Christian word used in a religious context to mean Christmas. There are obvious parallels with the idea that the date of Christmas may have been adopted from the Pagan festival of the winter solstice.
All my adult life, I thought it nonsensical that we celebrate New Year on the first of January. It seemed arbitrary at best, contrary at worst. But the Persian New Year – falling on the spring equinox, and the start of spring – made sense, in terms of new beginnings: the world emerges from hibernation; new life is born and hatched. Then, one night last week, out of the blue it occurred to me that in the context of the winter solstice – or ‘birth of the sun’ – this time of year does in fact make sense as the start of a new year, if one isn’t too literal about the date on which it is celebrated. Now it seems so obvious a connection, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.
Although I have never celebrated the Persian festival of Yalda, in recent years the meaning of my name has become more significant to me – as have the other three solstices and equinoxes – and I have tried to celebrate it in some way, whether with a moonlit walk in the woods, or having friends round for mulled wine by the fire. Though all of these have been wonderful occasions, I feel I haven’t yet quite arrived at the ‘right’ method of celebration. I will know when I do, and then it will no doubt become an annual tradition – for me, if for no one else.
Aside from celebrations, however, I hold on to this treasure: the knowledge that, though winter may only just have arrived, the shortest day of the year is past. Like Richard Jeffries’ lark, the lengthening days are ‘a sign of hope, a certainty of summer’.