Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Old Holidays Die Hard

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

Old holidays die hard.

Throughout the Persian-speaking world—Iran, Afghanistan, Kurdistan—the Winter Solstice is a widely-celebrated, if secular, holiday. (For Zoroastrians, of course, it retains its religious character.) In Farsi, it's called Yalda, a word which may or may not be related to the Semitic root YLD, “to give birth.”

It's customary to stay up all night, to see the year's longest night through from beginning to end. People pass the long candle-lit hours, as one would expect, telling stories, singing songs, and eating. In Iran, the tradition is to serve 13 different fresh fruits—pomegranates, melons, cucumbers—one for each moon of the coming year.

Interestingly, the trope of eating 13 foods at this time of year is a wide-spread one. To name only two examples, in Ukraine the Christmas Eve Svyata Vechera, the Holy Supper, traditionally consists of 13 courses. And Calena just wouldn't be Calena in Provence without the Treize Desserts, the Thirteen Desserts served after midnight on Christmas Day.


In Afghan—specifically, Pashtun—culture, Yalda is a time of longing, and the songs sung and poems recited often deal with love, particularly with lovers separated and longing to be reunited. Away from you, goes one song, every night seems as long as Midwinter's Eve.



It's distinctly possible that the solstices and equinoxes were the major holidays of the Indo-European-speaking ancestors, between 5000 and 6000 years ago. Chaumos, the winter solstice, is the major holiday of the Kalasha, the last remaining pagan people of the Hindu Kush, whose proudly-held polytheism is probably as close as we'll ever get to ancient Indo-Iranian religion. The Kalasha keep Chaumos with bonfires, torches, sacrifices, and feasting. They wear sprigs of juniper and holly oak, drink wine, dance, sing Chaumos songs, and pray for fruitfulness for the fields, the vineyards, the orchards, the herds, and the tribe. 


Just like we do.

All across Europe—literally from Russia to Sicily, from Ireland to Armenia—at some occasion or other around this time of year, people eat the same ritual dish: a porridge of whole grains sweetened with honey and enriched with seeds and nuts. (The version I make—essentially a Russian recipe—consists of wheat berries boiled in almond milk, with poppy seeds and honey, and scented with rose water. It's delicious.) It's possible—likely, even—that this dish is the oldest Yule recipe of all, going back to the beginnings of agriculture, 11,000 years ago. Conceivably (you'll never prove it), we've been eating this dish at Yule since the end of the last Ice Age.

At Yule, of all times of the year, the ghosts of ancestral ways walk the world. It is a time of long memory.

And as we know, old holidays die hard.

You can find my recipe for kutyá and much more in:



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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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