The following article was written by an Iranian citizen journalist on the ground inside the country, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity.
Mirza Shirazi Avenue, formerly known as Nader Shah, is located in one of the main Armenian neighborhoods in Tehran. At the moment, the avenue is decorated for Christmas and the approaching new year. Shop windows display Santa Claus dolls and the sidewalks are filled with pine trees, which will decorate the homes of Iranian Christians.
But Christmas is not only visible in this central Tehran street. It is also being celebrated in the east Tehran neighborhood of Majidieh, where many residents are preparing for Christmas and the new year period, now just a few days away.
Every year, starting in late November, shops in the two streets are decorated with gifts, pine trees, Santa Claus dolls and other seasonal items — and shoppers are ready.
“From the first day of Azar (November 22), we get ready and make sure we have the merchandise,” says K., a shopkeeper on Mirza Shirazi Avenue. “Of course, more than 90 percent of the merchandise is imported from China. The sale goes on till December 31. And then it is over.”
“The shoppers are not only Armenians and Christians. Many Muslims buy pine trees, Santa Clauses and other Christmas items and celebrate the holidays,” he explains. “They say it is a joyous and beautiful celebration. I don’t find it unusual, because Armenians celebrate the Iranian new year and participate in some Muslim religious ceremonies as well.”
Christmas in January
Ninety percent of the world’s Christians, including Catholics, Protestants and most followers of the Orthodox church, celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. But the Armenian church is independent. Like a number of other Christian churches, Armenians celebrates the birth of Christ on January 6. So instead of celebrating Christmas five days before the new year, Iranian Armenians celebrate it five days after.
Over the centuries, a number of travelers and Orientalists from the West have remarked on this tradition when visiting Iran’s Armenian areas. One of them was Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri (1651–1725), the Italian adventurer and world traveler who visited Armenia and Iran in the late 17th century and wrote about it in his 1699 book Giro Del Mondo.
“After the fourth century A.D., the Roman Catholic church declared that Jesus Christ was born on December 25 and was baptized on January 6,” wrote Ardak Manoukian, the former Armenian Archbishop in Iran. “Until then everybody celebrated January 6 as the day of Christ’s birth and baptism.”
“If you have an Armenian friend, remember not to call him on December 25, when all the radios and TVs and newspapers talk about Christmas and congratulate Christians on the birth of Jesus,” wrote the Armenian writer and documentary filmmaker Robert Safarian on his blog a few years ago. “The Armenian Christmas is on January 6, when probably nobody calls anyone to celebrate the holiday.”
“On their Christmas Eve, Iranian Armenians often dine on rice, fish and vegetable kuku (an Iranian dish made with whipped eggs, vegetables and herbs),” wrote Safarian. “Since childhood, we thought that this was a Christmas tradition until the borders to Armenia were opened and we learned that there is no dish in Armenia called vegetable kuku. It is an Iranian dish that has become an Armenian tradition.”
Because religious occasions in Iran are observed according to the Islamic lunar calendar, this year’s Christmas coincides with a mourning period for Muslims, and Shias in particular. But Iranian Christians have not encountered any restrictions in their preparations for Christmas and the new year. It continues to be a celebration that manifests itself in color and light in a few streets in the center of the Iranian capital.
By Vartan Hartoonian, Citizen Journalist, Tehran