Memories of Past Christmases in Iran

Catherine Yesayan


On a misty December day in Glendale this year, I was jolted back in time 50 years to my childhood Christmases in Tehran. The experience was evoked upon the sight of the beautiful holiday décor arranged by Glendale School Board member Mary Boger in their living room. Mrs. Boger’s home was one of the four enchanting homes chosen by Herbert Hoover High School for the Tour of Homes, a holiday fundraising tradition now in its 56th year.

I caught my breath when I entered their living room and saw not one, but three Christmas trees. They were all decorated in white twinkling lights and icicles. Patches of fluffy and sparkling snow made from cotton roll gave the look of a very old fashioned Christmas décor. I wished my mom was with me.

My mom – the Martha Stewart of 1960s Iran – was meticulous in every aspect of home making. And during the Christmas season, she put extensive effort into creating exceptional décors and a beautiful tree for our celebrations.

First, there was the buying of the tree. The Russian embassy was in walking distance from where we lived, and along the sides of its walls, Christmas trees were sold. Buying the Christmas tree was a family affair. We all went along – Mom, Dad and us three kids, but Mom had the last word.  She scrupulously chose the largest tree with the most perfect and symmetrical shape. We all brought the tree back home. The installing of the tree was a big hassle, because we didn’t have all the tools and facilities available today.

Then came the painstaking decoration. Aluminum icicles were at the height of fashion and she hung them all over the tree, making sure all the strands dangled perfectly straight from branches. As a special helper, I would place the lights evenly around the tree, squinting from afar until perfection was achieved. I was so proud to have the most beautifully decorated Christmas tree of all the families we knew.

My father’s side of the family belonged to the Evangelical Church, which was founded in the mid 1800s by American missionaries. The church was situated in the old part of Tehran on Ghavam-Saltaneh Street. Its sprawling grounds included two schools and living quarters for American missionaries. At this church, my father’s side of the family celebrated Christmas on December 25. My mother’s side belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church and they observed Christmas on January 6, as most Armenians do.

The Evangelical church to which my father belonged had a youth program. Mother was not keen about us participating in the program, because it was not conducted in Armenian, and our peers and instructors were proselytized Muslims. However, I loved the activities and have many fond memories of that church.

At the youth program, we learned Christmas carols in English and sometimes translated into Farsi. Leading up to Christmas, the elders of the church drove us around in crammed cars to visit different Christian homes so we could sing the songs we had learned. Today, hearing Christmas carols takes my mind back to that youth program. Without question, singing carols is a memory that I will always cherish. I’m glad that I insisted my mom to allow me to participate.

In Tehran, Christmas was not a big celebration, but New Year’s Eve was the excuse for major festivities. All the hoopla, the gift giving, the decorations, the “Holiday Tree” were for celebrating the New Year, not Christmas. Santa came on New Year’s Eve and we opened our gifts on New Year’s Day.

I sometimes think that it would have been so much better, if, here in the “West,” Santa would come for the New Year instead of Christmas. Then all children from every religion could enjoy the charm of Santa Claus. In reality, what does Santa have to do with the birth of Jesus?

Back to my memories of Armenian Christmas in Tehran: On January 5, we had our Christmas dinner around the table at my maternal grandmother’s home. The traditional food included smoked fish, pilaf and koukou. We had the same menu for Easter. I’m not sure how the dish became the traditional menu for Iranian-Armenians. I think the koukou (a cake of greens & eggs) and the pilaf were adopted from Persian cuisine, while fish is a staple from the Armenian tradition.

Red wine was always present on the table, and the “holy cracker” was brought from church and was cracked and served in the wine. The tradition also included burning incense (Frankincense), and I’ve always loved that aroma.

Another custom I remember, now phased out, was visitations. After Christmas and Easter for almost two weeks priests and deacons would visit parishioners’ homes and bless them.

Christmas and Easter dinners have an important role in our culture, and we were reminded of this regularly in Tehran. During dinner, our elders told us stories about how they celebrated the holy days in years past. My mom always told us that her father insisted that for Christmas the dinner could be served after the sun set, but Easter dinner had to be served while the sun was still up.

My grandfather was a village boy, his family moved to Tabriz when he was young. So my mother’s memory of her own father’s family practices reveal to me that Armenians living in villages in Iran also kept the tradition of having Christmas and Easter dinner.

The best part of Christmas was when we had the home ready for visitors on January 6. It was a tradition that the women stayed home while the men went from home to home to visit and celebrate the advent of Christmas and the New Year.

Our relatives and friends came for a short visit just to keep the tradition and to say Merry Christmas. They had to visit about 20 homes or more within a few hours. Usually they took taxi. We served them a shot of brandy and a chocolate and then off they went to the next home. Sometimes they brought their kids with them. That’s how we stayed in touch with distant relatives.

My dad was a translator and worked with many Jewish and Muslim merchants. On January 6th, all his clients came to visit us. The house had such a festive spirit. We were dressed in our best clothes, the house decorated “to the T” and the food was overflowing. Dad’s clients brought us nice expensive gifts: huge vases, bowls, platters and trays of sterling silver or hand-painted miniatures in rich marquetry (khatam-kari) frames. We kids received gold coins. Usually Dad was not at home because according to the tradition he had to visit other relatives, but Mom received the visitors graciously.

A few years ago when Mom was still alive, I had the opportunity to walk to her home for our “Jour-orhnek” dinner – Blessed-water – that’s what we call the Armenian Christmas. To get to her home, I had to cross small residential streets in Glendale, where most homes are occupied with Armenians.

While walking, I looked through the windows and saw some dinner tables ready inside homes. The mood was so festive. I noticed people arriving by car or on foot, with their hands full. They carried gifts or dishes of food that they had prepared. I could even smell incense burning while passing by some homes.

Needless to say, the women were coiffed beautifully and the men were in their best suits. I was overjoyed to see how in these foreign shores, “Odar aperoom,” we Armenians are thriving and the traditions are alive and well.

As I sit here reflecting about past Christmases, I realize that although I no longer fuss about decorating my house and to have the largest and the most beautiful tree, I admire people who do that. I feel blessed that I can pass my stories to our next generation and I hope they will continue to tell the stories and practice the customs we have brought with us from old countries.

I’d like to quote the prolific novelist Isabel Allende who says, “I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, and I have to deal with it sooner or later.”  This is true with me. I appreciate Asbarez paper for giving me the opportunity to share my stories. I wish all a happy and healthy 2014.

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  1. Dena Aslanian-Williams said:

    What a beautiful story, it brought back so many memories of Christmasses back home.

  2. Jason T. said:

    This is a great summary of tradition and Christmas memories. I might have to add some of these to our annual traditions after visiting Armenia and seeing the rich culture last year.

  3. GB said:

    Sireli Catherine,

    Those were the days…The sweet memories of the past will remain, for ever in our hearts!