I have notified everyone I will no longer be participating in Christmas ceremonies. My decision has shocked friends and relatives, to say the least. After all, years ago when it was not common for Iranians to have a Christmas tree and decorate the outside of their houses, I'd have a tree and the decorations would get more elaborate every year.
Iranian friends would be baffled thinking I had become Westernized. American friends were impressed by my embracing their traditions. I had invented some story about how it was of ancient Iranian origins and that was why I was celebrating it. I had heard a few things about how Iranian rituals had leaked into Roman society through Mithraism. But I always embellished my meager knowledge with fiction.
So by my account, all things having to do with Christmas had started either in Iran or by Iranians. It was Iranians who invented decorating a Cypress tree and placed presents under it. Iranians invented outlining their houses with lighting. They invented the concept of the shopping season and malls. Iranians invented the fruitcake, eggnog, turkey stuffing, and greeting cards.
Yes sir. Those cultureless Romans and Dark-Age Christians stole all those ideas, even the concept of Baba Noruz, which they called Santa Claus. We even invented holiday travel when we started skipping town over Noruz to avoid unannounced house guests who would wear out their welcome by eating kangar and dropping langar. I once had one of those guests. I told them I needed to go buy some maast. I left and never went back. Needless to say, we're no longer friends.
My reason for quitting Christmas isn't economical, even though that's a big factor. It wasn't the inequality of buying expensive gifts and receiving useless cheapo trinkets. A few years ago, I got my friend a paid vacation to Cancun and he got me a salad shooter. Of course these things do cause a vicious circle of compensating for last year's inequalities. The next year he got me a giant screen TV and I got him a used coffee mug. The year after that I got him a timeshare in Maui and he got me a blank VCR tape. The following year I got him a plastic aaftaabeh and he got me a Mercedes. That's when I decided I'd better quit while I was still ahead. Needless to say, we're no longer friends.
The reason isn't because I don't have the Christmas “spirit”. Actually I don't, but I walk around like I have the Christmas spirit in my back pocket. I don't even know what exactly this Christmas spirit is. Is it hard liquor? Is it a ghost? When I first came to America and heard everyone talking about it I had trouble understanding. Then I thought it was about “giving”. But soon I realized that was all a ploy on the part of Big Business to pack people into shopping malls with inadequate parking space and stir them into a buying frenzy in order to sell the masses tons of useless junk. I have to admit, they do a good job of it. Do you know how many times I bought something because the ad said “it makes a PERFECT gift”?
I also felt very funny buying stuff for people based on what I guessed they would like to have or could use, and they would go buy me stuff that they would guess I would like or could use. Why not you buy whatever the heck it is you need, and I buy whatever I would like to have and save ourselves the extra silly step?
To top it all off, when you open your gift in the presence of the gift giver you have to pretend like you're completely surprised and you have to exclaim “I LOVE IT!” Last year I got so tired of pretending that when I opened my present — a semi deluxe belt which looked like a dog collar — I threw it in the trash can and said “I don't have a dog.” I felt much relief. Of course, my friend, a grown man of some respectability, started weeping like a baby. But that's his problem. Needless to say, we're no longer friends.
At any rate, I like our own uncommercialized Noruz celebrations much better. If you like somebody, you go visit them instead of buying them junk.
The other reason I'm quitting Christmas isn't that I've been losing house lighting contests in my neighborhood. I used to have the most elaborate lighting, minus things like the nativity scene. But lately my neighbors have been putting my house to shame. After I won a prize for the best house decoration two years ago, my neighbor Steve got very serious. He bought power tools, tall ladders and about $8,000 worth of lighting. He started putting it all up back in July. I knew I had no chance . So I didn't want to give him the pleasure of there even being a contest. I didn't take my string lights out. Needless to say, we're no longer friends.
It's not that I'm tired of seeing standard Christmasy things around this time. Like unattractive ladies trying to set a missletoe trap. Or charity organizations trying to milk money out of you by laying a guilt trip on you. Or receiving tons of Christmas cards from strangers and businesses trying to bring you in, such as realtors, department stores and psychotherapists. Or seeing the millionth rendition of “It's A Wonderful Life”, “A Christmas Carol” and “Miracle on 34th Street”.
In all these mushy Western symbols of feeling goody goody there is always a hidden magical entity with a wonderful quality which you're just not getting, and all you have to do to get it is to just “open your heart.” Of course they don't tell you that your heart closes again when the day after Christmas you start taking back the junk you received (and pretended to have LOVED). Yes, standing for a few hours in the return line will do that to you. Needless to say, we're no longer friends. (I had to say that to make this paragraph rhyme with the other ones.)
My reason is somewhat selfish. When I used to celebrate Christmas, I was the only one among those Iranians I knew. Others would look at me funny. I was different; I was a benign black sheep; someone who walked on both sides of the road simultaneously; someone who dared to celebrate another culture's rituals without losing his own.
I used to celebrate all major occasions. I'd go to an American friend's Thanksgiving dinner in the afternoon, and then I would go over to my Iranian friends' who were getting together because they had the day off – not because they were celebrating – and eat their chelo-khoresh for a second dinner. On 4th of Julys I'd go out picnicking during the day with my American friends and then would go to an Iranian concert after the fireworks. (It has been mathematically proven that regardless of the occasion, for each and every American event, there is a corresponding and utterly irrelevant Iranian concert somewhere.)
Of course, Christmas was always the major one for me. I'd go through the full experience. I'd even put myself through the torture of holiday travel to fly with some friend clear across the country to stay with their family for Christmas. Yes. They'd have me as part of their family and boy was I the festive one! Sometimes they'd let me carve the turkey too. I'd watch the football games with the guys. I'd even make the eggnog. “Merry Christmas Harold.” “Merry Christmas June.” “Merry Christmas Mary.” And they would say “Merry Christmas Hamid.”
Since I was the only one who could do a little piano, I'd play Jingle Bells while they'd gather around me and sing. As though I had always been one of them… Yes sir. I had that kind of audacity. Of course, you'll find me in all Iranian occasions. Mehregan. Noruz. Yalda. Malda. “Saal-e no mobaarak.” “Mehregan ro tabrik migam.”
I always sensed a bit of envy in friends as though they wanted to do what I was doing, except that they were not comfortable doing it. They thought it was cheating, or a sign of inferiority. But as people began to get settled into the host country's culture, things changed. As kids were born, parents had an excuse for their celebration of Christmas, because they didn't want their kids to feel like they were “missing out” on anything.
So now, just about every hamvatan I know has a bigger and brighter tree, has a more elaborate house decoration, knows all the rituals, and refers to Santa Claus as “Santa”, as though he's their pesar amoo. Their kids can play and recite Jingle Bells, Silent Night, The Twelve Days of Christmas, etc. How nice. Good for them.
But for me, the novelty is gone. I'm not a rebel worthy of being an outcast. I've been caught up with and surpassed. All my Iranian friends are way beyond where I was at the height of my dualism. Christmas doesn't seem special anymore. So, I'm thinking about taking up the Chinese culture. I hear it's the Year of the Turkey this year.
* Also by Hamid Taghavi: — For the record: A detailed report on Iran's miraculous soccer match with Australia