A Winter Trend? Deck the Halls!
by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran
31 Dec 2008 20:42
Though not quite rising to the status of an unofficial holiday in Iran, Christmas festivities have been increasingly popular among Iran's young. Holiday greetings were swapped enthusiastically by those who dwell online and in the Persian blogosphere. This in part has a religious basis as Muslims acknowledge the birth of Jesus Christ and recognize him as one of God's holy messengers. In that respect, Christmas well wishes were not unheard of among Iranian officials, including Majlis' three Christian members of parliament -- and even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose Christmas address to the people of Britain was televised on the U.K.'s Channel 4.
The younger generation may have additional reasons for wanting to partake in Christmas merriment. "I've always had the desire to spend Christmastime in church," says Leila, who is 19 and avowedly Muslim. "It's such a beautiful ritual. I wish I could be present when the pine tree is being hung with ornaments and decorations." Christmas also has a playful angle for her in that it invokes cartoon characters like "Daffy Duck" and "Scrooge."
Manouchehr's flower shop in north Tehran also caters to Christmas shoppers this season. About half of those who bought Christmas trees this year were non-Christian, he said. "I certainly don't poll my customers," he said, "but you can tell from the way some of them act or the questions they ask that they are not Christian."
On a jaunt to see Santa Claus, purchase Christmas or New Year's decorations, one may be extended an invitation to a holiday flea market. They are usually set up at a church or an Armenian or Assyrian club. In the past, members of Christian charities spread their ware, which usually consisted of homemade cookies and cakes, jams and conserves, knits and small Christmas decorations. Proceeds were donated to families unable to afford Christmas and homes for the elderly. Today these markets have become a more inclusive public space. With special permission, non-Christians may also operate a booth to sell their own products.
Strolling along Mirza Shirazi Avenue (Nader Shah) or Ostaad Nejat Ellahi (Villa Avenue) one is truck by the number of Christmas trees, both natural and artificial. The stores along Villa Avenue, which lead to the St. Sarkis Armenian Church, were especially aglitter with holiday decorations: golden globes, candy canes, Santa Claus replicas, and the star that goes above the tree. A wide selection of Christmas cards were also available in some of these stores. From Lord Bakery at the beginning of Villa Avenue even the aroma of Christmas delicacies wafted through the air.
According to Parsine.com, a news website, at some childcare centers in Tehran, playtime activities included decorating Christmas trees on school premises. Though private, these childcare centers operate under the authorization of the Islamic Republic and thus prompted negative comments from some officials.
This apparent trend is certainly not embraced by all. "Celebrating Christmas by non-Christians is another form of imitation and not because we have any customs in common. It's not as if we were Christians before Islam," said Ziba, 25, who lives in Sari in north Iran. "It's another strange and foreign behavior that distances us from our own authentic practices and customs."
Mehdi, who lives in the holy city of Qom, thinks along the same lines. "This is the Westoxification Jalal Ahmad spoke of so extensively in his book. In any event, we're Muslim. So far I have never met a Japanese who celebrates Christmas. Most of them would probably see it as I do, a commercial phenomenon."
Another Western practice that has found its way into the hearts of many young Iranians is Valentine's Day. Over the past decade, heart-shaped oddities and other markers of this Christian-rooted day of love have existed and competed alongside the symbols of the revolution: The first 10 days of February mark its victory.
This year Iranian Christians continued to celebrate the holidays, though authorities have reportedly clamped down on churches clandestinely set up in homes and have jailed those allegedly responsible for the distribution of literature aimed at attracting coverts.
Hamid, a university student in Tehran, says, "These celebrations mark the beginning of the New Year in many places. Acknowledging that in Iran is just a form of being in step with the rest of the world. I know for me it's an attractive phenomenon since I've been exposed to it so much in movies and literature. But of course it should go both ways: Others should respect us and our holidays."
Copyright © 2008 Tehran Bureau