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Dispatch | December in Tehran

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

31 Dec 2011 16:38Comments
1001290-1645636.jpgOh, the weather outside is frightful...

[ dispatch ] Christmas is not an official holiday in Iran, still it makes its presence known. While Armenians, Assyrians, and other Christian minorities have long celebrated the date, a growing number of non-Christian middle-class families mark it as a joyous occasion, as well. There might not be an exchange of gifts, but there are Christmas parties and decorations in full swing. And yet the gap between poor and rich is hard to ignore even on this happy occasion.

Though predominantly Muslim, Iran is home to a number of Christian communities. Armenians and Assyrians practice traditions dating to the early days of Christianity. There are Greek Orthodox and other denominations, as well. While Assyrians celebrate Christmas on December 25 as in the West, the fact that many other Iranian Christians celebrate it at different times -- the Armenians, for instance, on January 19 -- testifies to their diversity and ancient history. Isfahan and Orumieh have thriving Armenian communities where, although Christmas is sometimes acknowledged by the authorities, it is still not officially celebrated. So people there as elsewhere in the country are left to their own devices to mark the day.

In Tehran, by Christmas Eve the shops on Mirzay-e Shirazi Street, a few blocks from Haft-e Tir Square, had already made a killing selling cards, decorations, and trees. Many products were Chinese imports, but there were also European delicacies and even some items crafted by local artisans.

In a shop owned by two charming middle-aged men, I found dozens of Christmas cards priced around 4,500 rials, or $3 each. There were clay statues of Santa Claus, angels, and stars. A couple of Armenian ladies shopped for decorations. Their conversation began in Farsi. "So how much for this?" said one of the women, holding an arrangement of green branches wrapped in red and white ribbons.

"Thirty thousand tomans," one of the shopkeepers answered. About $25.

Surprised at the high price, the ladies started to bargain in Armenian. My Armenian is minimal, but I fully understood the phrase "Thirty is too much!"

A store on the opposite side of the street had set up a nativity scene in its window. Three men were offering baby Jesus, resting in the arms of Mary, their gifts. Here no one has forgotten that one of the three wise men was from Persia. In a park a few hundred yards away stands a marble statue of St. Mary. On the park's opposite side there is St. Sarkis Cathedral, where Armenians worship. The story of Jesus's birth and Mary's ordeal are told again and again in the Qur'an and the masterpieces of classical Persian literature.

Christians aside, many European- and American-educated Iranians and urban middle-class youth use Christmas as an excuse to get together. The shopping malls around Tajrish Square are a hub for those who seek fancy holiday decorations. Shops in the Qaem bazaar had windows full of Christmas ornaments, little trees, stars, and Santas in every size and style.

A young shopkeeper told me, "You are late, we are already sold out." His windows were half empty. A girl in her early 20s entered and asked for elf hats.

"All out. I have none left," the manager said.

"Do you know if someone else has any?" the disappointed shopper asked.

"No, I am the only one who had them."

The proud shopkeeper informed me, "Every year I handpick Christmas items, and I am always sold out by Christmas Eve."

The holiday inventory is not cheap. Another store offered me one of its last plastic Christmas trees. "This is the last one that's good," said the proprietor. "I sold them for 81,000 tomans [$70]. I give this one to you for 70,000 tomans [$62]."

Smiling, I asked, "How is business?"

"Good, but I took down my Christmas items for three days." Pointed at a store a few steps away, he explained, "They closed that one down for selling Barbie dolls. I got worried." As usual, shopkeepers have to walk a fine line of caution.

Young people were going store to store buying red crystal balls and Santa dolls. Girls giggled and talked of the parties to which they were headed. Most were well-dressed, and many sported high-heel boots and name-brand handbags. Boys played with their iPhones -- around $950 a pop in Tehran -- and eyeballed the girls as they talked among themselves. The sample I encountered might not have been representative, still it seemed to me that Christmas among non-Christian Iranians was a festivity for the affluent, trying to catch up with global trends.

North of Tajrish Square, outside the Tandis shopping center, children begged those in the passing crowd to buy their cards. One sat on his knees beneath a lamppost, his little hands pushed firmly into his pockets. He shivered in the chill breeze. Inside the mall, shoppers navigated around a large Christmas tree into the United Colors of Benetton store, where prices were particularly extravagant.

It's hardly a Christmas story without a matchstick girl. Near the entrance to the Tajrish bazaar, a young lady sold woolen socks in different colors. She had arranged them on a box, and herself sat on a smaller box. Wearing glasses and a clean dark headscarf, she seemed too intelligent to be selling socks. Calmly, quietly, she read a book. There was an immense sense of dignity about her that commanded respect. A passerby saw her and grabbed his camera to take a snapshot. Then he hesitated, lowered his camera, and instead bought a pair of socks.

Afterward, I approached her, bearing a brace of red-and-brown socks, and asked, "How much for a pair of these?"

"Four thousand tomans. They are very warm, sir," she said.

I looked into her eyes. They were calm, warm, resigned, and yet determined. From a store nearby I heard,

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

But the fire is so delightful,

And since we've no place to go,

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

Photos: Tehran 2010. More here.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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