Published: 13-11-2010, 14:22

Christmas in Iran

Ninety-nine percent of the citizens of Iran, or Persia, are Muslims. Christians, members of the Bahai faith, Jews, and others make up the remaining one percent. The very small number of Christians means that Christmas celebrations in Iran generally revolve around quiet church and home observances. Nevertheless, in the capital city of Tehran, shops located in the Armenian quarter of the city display Nativity scenes in their windows as the holiday draws near and Christian families shop for the upcoming festival (see also Christmas in Armenia). Many Iranian Christians are of Armenian and Assyrian descent. Most are members of some branch of the Eastern Church, which is composed of Christians whose traditions of worship developed in the Middle East, eastern Europe and north Africa. Eastern Christians fast during Advent. Iranian Christians call this period of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas time the "Little Fast.” This name distinguishes it from the Easter festival’s Lenten fast, which they call the "Great Fast.”

On Christmas Eve Iranian churches hold special services, which usually include a Nativity play that retells the story of Jesus’ birth. Iranians end their Christmas fast with the bread and wine taken during the rite of Holy Communion (Eucharist) at this service. Church services also take place on Christmas Day.

Iranian Christians have incorporated two western Christmas tradi-tions into their celebrations: the Christmas tree and the gift giver Baba Noel, a Middle Eastern version of Father Christmas or Santa Claus. On Christmas Day children delight in opening the presents they discover under the tree. In past times most children received one modest, homemade gift—often new clothing—slipped gently under their pillow. Delighted with this practical gift, they paraded about in their new clothes all week long. Now they scamper to the tree on Christmas morning to find a number of gifts waiting for them. Adult family members also give one another presents. In addition, friends and family visit one another on Christmas Day. Visiting children are offered packets of sweets. Iranian children sometimes celebrate Christmas with egg-tapping games similar to those played by children around the world at Easter time.

Iranian Christians traditionally enjoy a kind of chicken stew, called harisa, for their Christmas dinner, as well as a pastry dessert called kada. Iranian Christians sometimes refer to the festival as the "Little Feast.” This name distinguishes it as a holiday of less importance than Easter, which is known as the "Great Feast.”

Though today their numbers are few, Christians of Assyrian, Armenian, and Chaldean descent have lived in Iran since the fourth and fifth centuries. The country’s association with Christmas dates back even further, however. Some writers believe that the Magi, the wise men who brought the infant Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, came from this ancient land.