My Childhood Christmases in Tehran –

Catherine yesayan


A few years ago, before the pandemic, on a hazy December day in Glendale, I was shaken back in time, 60 years ago, at my childhood Christmases in Tehran. Memories were brought to mind at the sight of a beautiful holiday decor arranged in a house for the ‘Christmas Home Tour’ hosted by the Glendale United School District as part of a holiday fundraising tradition. .

I caught my breath as I walked into one of the houses and saw, in their living room, not one, but three Christmas trees. They were all decorated with sparkling white lights and aluminum ice cubes. Fluffy, shimmering snow patches made from a cotton roll gave the appearance of an old-fashioned Christmas decor.

I wish my mother was still alive. To me, she was the Martha Stewart of the 1960s in Iran. She was meticulous in all aspects of making the house and during the Christmas season she went to great lengths to create exceptional decorations and a beautiful tree for our celebrations.

First there was the purchase of the tree. The Russian Embassy was within walking distance of where we lived, and CChristmas trees were sold along the sides of its walls. Buying the tree was a family affair. We’ve all been there – mum, dad and the three of us, but mum had the last laugh.

She scrupulously chose the tallest tree with the most perfect and symmetrical shape. We all brought the tree home. Installing the shaft was a big deal, as we didn’t have all the tools available today. Then came the careful decoration. Aluminum ice cubes were trendy and she hung them all over the tree, making sure all the sprigs hung perfectly straight from the branches.

As an assistant, I placed 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 any family we knew.

The fatherly side of the family belonged to the Evangelical Church, which was founded in the mid-1800s by American missionaries. The church was located in the old city of Tehran on Ghavam-Saltaneh Street. Its expansive grounds included two schools and lodgings for American missionaries and, of course, there was the Evangelical Church.

For this reason, the father’s side of the family celebrated Christmas on December 25. My mother’s side belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church and they celebrated Christmas on January 6th, as most Armenians do.

The evangelical church my father belonged to had a youth program. Mother was not keen on our participation in the program, as it was not conducted in Armenian, and our peers and instructors were Muslim proselytes. However, I loved the activities and have many fond memories of this church.

In the youth program, we learned Christmas carols in English, as well as some translated into Farsi. Before Christmas, the church elders drove us in crowded cars to visit different Christian homes so that we could sing the songs we had learned.

Today hearing Christmas carols brings me back to this youth program. Without a doubt, singing Christmas carols is a memory I will always cherish. I am glad I insisted that my mother let me participate in the programs.

In Tehran, Christmas was not a big celebration, but New Year’s Eve was the pretext for big festivities. All the fuss, gifts, decorations, the “holiday tree” were to celebrate New Years, not Christmas.

Santa Claus came on New Years Day and we opened our presents on New Years Day. Sometimes I think it would have been so much better if, here in the “West”, Santa Claus had come for New Years instead of Christmas. Then, all the children of all religions were able to enjoy the charm of Santa Claus. What does Santa Claus actually have to do with the birth of Jesus?

Let’s go back to my memories of Armenian Christmas in Tehran: On January 5, we had our Christmas dinner around the table with my maternal grandmother. Traditional food included smoked fish, pilau rice and koukou. We had the same menu for Easter.

I don’t know how the dish became the traditional Iranian-Armenian menu. I think koukou (a cake of greens and eggs) and pilaf have been adopted from Persian cuisine, while fish is a staple in Armenian tradition. The red wine was still on the table, and the “holy cracker” was brought from the church and was broken and served in the wine.

The tradition also included the burning of incense (frankincense), an aroma that I have always loved. Another custom I remember, now phased out, was visiting. After Christmas and Easter, for almost two weeks, priests and deacons visited the homes of parishioners and blessed them.

Christmas and Easter dinners have an important role in our culture, and we were reminded regularly over dinner when our elders told us stories of how they celebrated holy days in years past.

My mom always told us that her dad insisted that for Christmas dinner could be served after sunset, but at Easter dinner was to be served while the sun was still up.

My grandfather was a boy from the village, his family moved to Tabriz when he was young. Thus, my mother’s memory of her own father’s family practices reveals 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 the house was ready for visitors on January 6th. Traditionally, women stayed at home while men went from house to house 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 alive and to say Merry Christmas. They were to visit a dozen houses in a few hours. Usually they took a taxi. We served them a glass of brandy and chocolate, then they went to the house next door. Sometimes they took their children with them. This is how we stayed in touch with distant relatives.

My father was a translator and worked with many Jewish and Muslim merchants. Every year, on January 6, all of his clients came to visit us. The house had such a festive spirit. We were dressed in our best clothes, the house decorated in a T and the food was overflowing.

Daddy’s customers brought us beautiful, expensive gifts: huge sterling silver vases, bowls, dishes, and trays, or hand-painted miniatures in rich inlaid frames (khatam-kari). We children received gold coins. Usually, dad was not at home because according to tradition he had to visit other relatives, but mum received visitors with kindness.

A few years ago, when Mum was still alive, I had the opportunity to walk to her house for our “Day-orhnek” dinner – holy water, which is what we call Armenian Christmas. .

To get to her house, I had to walk through small residential streets in Glendale, where most of the houses are occupied by Armenians. As I walked, I looked out the windows and saw dinner tables ready. The atmosphere was so festive. I noticed that Armenians were 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 the scent of incense burning as I passed some houses.

Needless to say, the women were dressed beautifully and the men were in their finest suits. I was delighted to see how, on these foreign shores, “Odar’s aperitif”, we Armenians prosper and traditions are very much alive.

As I sit here reflecting on Christmases gone by, I realize that although I no longer care about decorating my house and having the tallest and most beautiful tree, I admire the people who do. .

I feel blessed to be able to pass my stories to our next generation, and I hope they continue to tell the stories and practice the customs that we brought from the old countries.

I would like to quote prolific novelist Isabel Allende, who says, “I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Every story is a seed inside of me that begins to grow and grow, and I have to face it sooner or later. It’s true with me. With my best wishes for a year 2022.

Catherine yesayan is a regular contributor to Asbarez, her columns appearing under the heading “Community links”. She can be reached at [email protected]


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