Iran has centuries of history and civilization, with numerous national and religious symbols, days, and rituals—many of which have their roots in the ancient history of the land or the traditions of modern Iranians’ distant ancestors. Some of these traditions include Nowruz, the beginning of the Iranian New Year; Yalda, the longest night of the year; Sizdah Be-dar, a holiday celebrating nature and the outdoors; and Chaharshanbe Suri, a fire-dancing festival with its roots in Zoroastrianism. However, a new celebration has increasingly been observed in Iran that has virtually nothing to do with the country’s rich history and religious traditions: Christmas.
The Christmas Spirit
In the weeks leading up to December 25, Tehran’s “Mirzai Shirazi” street is increasingly full of stores selling Christmas decorations and memorabilia. Many Iranians flock to this street to buy these decorations, or simply to take pictures on the street, which is lined with Christmas trees and holiday lights.
At first glance, one might assume that the Christmas revelers predominantly come from Iran’s Christian Armenian minority, and the only significant Christian denomination in the country. However, only around 120,000 out of Iran’s 90 million people are Armenian Christians, comprising less than 0.5% of the population; moreover, Armenians traditionally celebrate Christmas on January 6, rather than December 25. Instead, more than 80% of the buyers are reportedly Shi’a Muslims, who do not traditionally celebrate the birth of Christ in their religious traditions.
In spite of this, it seems that Iranian Muslims are more eager to celebrate Christmas than even their Armenian compatriots. In recent years, they have shown greater interest in organizing Christmas parties, and every year this interest is more than the previous year. Sales of Christmas trees and associated decorations have steadily increased over the past decade, even as these items have grown more expensive amid Iran’s economic crisis. Christmas trees in Iran reportedly cost between 8.8 million rials ($18) and 138 million rials ($280). Reports show that some people who were interested in celebrating Christmas suddenly rushed to the historical church “Vank” (built in 1664) in Isfahan to participate in the ceremony.
The reason for the interest of Iranian Muslims can be explained in several ways. Iranians, who have lived under an puritanical Islamic Revolution regime for 45 years, have still maintained their interest in modernity and showing their empathy with the developments of the modern world. Iranians, particularly in the young and outward-looking generation, intend to show that they are a part of the modern intellectual society of the world by celebrating Western occasions such as Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Christmas; and despite the government’s disapproval of this thinking, these sentiments have only grown over time.
Another reason for Iranians to celebrate Christmas is to participate in happiness and join together with other family members or other group celebrations. “[Christmas days] are an unusual time [in Iran]. Santa Claus and lights attract people. I think people like to be happy, and they are looking for an opportunity to be happy, and they can fill their happiness gap,” Emilia Narsissians, an Iranian Christian professor at Tehran State University, explained in an interview with Ensaf News.
Iranians try to use the smallest opportunity to be happy and together. It is interesting to note that Christmas Day is only four days after the ancient festival of Yalda, the celebration of the longest night of the year, when families spend many hours together and treat themselves to traditional foods and music.
The Regime’s Reaction
Unsurprisingly, the Iranian government, as an austere clerical regime, has viewed the celebration of Christmas by Muslims with suspicion and hostility. However, although some commentators—including exiled Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi in a recent interview with Fox News—have claimed that the government has attempted to suppress the celebration of Christmas, these claims are overstated; the Iranian government has never proscribed Christmas celebrations. Even during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in December 2005, Tehran Municipality announced that it would give five thousand pine trees as a gift to the Armenian Christian community. On the other hand, the government has attempted to arrest Christmas revelers for breaking the law in other ways—for instance, by consuming alcohol or by dancing in public.
The government’s overarching narrative around the holiday has been that Christmas represents a cultural invasion and a Western attempt to improperly influence authentic Iranian culture. “A country that has ‘Amu Nowruz’ does not need Santa Claus. A country that has old national and historical stories does not need to celebrate Halloween. We must prevent cultural invasion by promoting authentic Iranian stories,” Hamed Alamati, CEO of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, a state-run cultural and artistic institution in the field of producing children’s cultural works, said on Iranian state television.
The Iranian regime’s opposition to both pre-Islamic Iranian symbols and Western cultural influence has been a hallmark of the post-1979 era. With the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the basis of the high-ranking officials of the revolution was the change of Iranian identity to Islamic and Shi’a identity. With this analysis, any type of content that is related to the previous monarchy or ties to the West, according to regime officials, is condemned, while rituals with cleric-approved religious elements have been strengthened.
The Iranian regime tends to weaken the ancient and traditional occasions and put them in the shadow of traditional religious ceremonies, as well as newly-invented occasions such as the Arbaeen pilgrimage, visiting Iran-Iraq war sites, and Ghadir. These works are an attempt to homogenize society and impose the desired cultural and ideological style on the people. Even Nowruz, Iran’s most important holiday commemorating the traditional new year, has not been safe from this influence. In 1998, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei spoke out against the commemoration of ‘Ancient Nowruz’, claiming, “The word Nowruz is good, but its ‘ancient, word is bad, because Nowruz was a festival in the service of autocratic governments before Islam.”
However, the government’s fumbling attempts to diminish the ancient and traditional identity and values of Iranians have had the opposite result. People, especially in recent years, are clearly against the actions of the government, and are profoundly uninterested in Iran’s leaders preparing a cleric-approved cultural program for them. People’s desire to celebrate Christmas can be evaluated in this context. “Some clerics oppose things like celebrating Christmas day and the cedar tree. Whatever the clerics opposed, it reflected differently,” Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meibodi, a university professor and one of the country’s foremost religious intellectuals, said.
In short, the Iranian regime is engaged in a confrontational conflict against the nation to homogenize Iranian culture for its own benefit. Celebrating Christmas can be a basis for declaring opposition to this ideology. It is possible that if the government wants to recommend an order to diminish or suppress these ceremonies for the crime of ‘xenophobia’ or ‘cultural invasion,’ even more people would join in the celebration of these ceremonies in order to show their defiance. This being the case—and with the Mahsa Amini protests still a recent memory—Iran’s religious officials have sensibly decided not to interfere, and to allow the revelers to quietly celebrate.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.