The winter solstice festival of Yalda, which marks the longest and coldest night of the year, is an occasion for Iranians to get together and celebrate till the wee hours of the morning.

This year, however, the celebrations associated with the ancient Iranian festival were remarkably subdued owing to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Authorities had issued orders for the markets to close early and traffic restrictions were also put in place to prevent the resurgence of virus cases.

“Let’s not gather (on Yalda festival), so we don’t become fewer,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani warned people in televised remarks on Saturday, a day before the festival.

While restrictions dampened the mood and flavor of festivities, people nevertheless organized small gatherings in homes, cafes, and restaurants to mark the occasion.

The Yalda Night festival is also celebrated with great enthusiasm in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

Hamid Qorbani, a Tehran-based artist and singer, arranged a party for his close friends at a downtown café.

“Yalda festival is generally associated with family reunions, traditional food, Persian poetry, songs, and laughter,” Qorbani told Anadolu Agency. “This year the celebrations have been low-key.”

The festival, also known as “Shab e Chilleh” in Persian, has roots in Iranian mythology, as it marks the “triumph of light over darkness” and symbolizes many things.

Among the most popular traditions associated with the Yalda festivities is reciting the poetry of 14th-century Iranian poet Hafiz Shirazi, which resonates with hope and optimism.

“Families in Iran on this night generally come together and recite the poetry of Hafiz, and then each member of the family randomly opens Hafiz’s poetry books and looks up for the verses that are believed to be an interpretation of their wish,” historian Reza Aboiee told Anadolu Agency.

Another tradition is eating red fruits like watermelon and pomegranates, which is believed to immunize from the chilling cold of winter.

On Sunday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry organized a webinar titled “Yalda: Regional Solidarity” to mark the ancient festival.

The Iranian government has sought to register the festival on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list by 2022. The matter is likely to be discussed at the 2022 world committee meeting of the UN’s cultural body.

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