BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
A few years ago, before the pandemic, on a misty December day in Glendale, I was jolted back in time to 60 years ago to my childhood Christmases in Tehran. The memories were evoked upon the sight of a beautiful holiday décor arranged at a home for the “Christmas Tour of Homes,” organized by the Glendale Unified School District as a holiday fundraising tradition.
I caught my breath when I entered one of the homes and saw, in their living room, not one, but three Christmas trees. They were all decorated in white twinkling lights and aluminum icicles. Patches of fluffy and sparkling snow made from cotton roll gave the look of an old fashioned Christmas décor.
I wished my mom was still alive. In my eyes, she was the Martha Stewart of the 1960s in Iran. She was meticulous in every aspect of home-making and, during the Christmas season, she put extensive effort into creating exceptional decorations 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 Christmas trees were sold along the sides of its walls. Buying the 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 available today. Then came the painstaking decorating. Aluminum icicles were at the height of the fashion and she hung them all over the tree, making sure all the strands dangled perfectly straight from branches.
As a 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 and, of course, there was the Evangelical church.
For this reason, 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, as well as a few 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 to my mom to allow me to participate in the programs.
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, rice 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 and eggs) and the pilaf were adopted from Persian cuisine, while fish is a staple from the Armenian tradition. Red wine was always 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), an aroma I’ve always loved. Another custom I remember, now phased out, was the 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 during dinner when 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 during 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. As a tradition 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 a dozen or so homes within a few hours. Usually they took a taxi. We served them a shot of brandy and 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. Each year, on January 6, 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 a 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, which is 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. The mood was so festive. I noticed Armenians 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 of the 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 having the largest and most beautiful tree, I admire people who do.
I feel blessed that I can pass my stories on to our next generation, and I hope they will continue to tell the stories and practice the customs we’ve brought with us from the 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.” That’s true with me. With best wishes for a 2022 year.