A chance meeting, some two years ago, of an Iranian scholar who, as fate has it, now lives in Helsinki, Finland, introduced me to an aspect of Iranian history, which to this date is nothing short of a love affair with my ancestors, long forgotten but who deserve to be remembered for what they truly were. For this enlightenment, I am forever indebted to this friend.
At this particular time of the year, I would like to share something with my fellow Iranians that I think speaks volumes of everything Iranian that has been stolen. I feel sure that there are thousands of Iranians who are aware of this, but somehow have not kept reminding others of the facts.
When my children were growing up and were still at home, Christmas was a difficult time for us parents. At school and other gatherings, my children like all other Iranian children, could not quite understand the lack of enthusiasm that we exhibited at the holiday season. I dare say that this indifference in us parents, may have even strengthened the feeling that their parents are “different.” They, as children everywhere, never felt different. But their parents? Well you know.
The result of the chance meeting, was that a small amount of research produced a very sweet little historical fact. And had I known this, I would have happily, gladly, and most proudly celebrated this particular holiday season as one of my very own. And I would not have been uncomfortable at Christmas, whether I had a tree or not.
For this reason, I want to share this fact with all Iranians, in Iran or abroad, and to recommend celebrations on December 25th as the birthday of Mitra, which we celebrated as early as 5000 B.C. Zoroastrians after refining and discarding some of the mythical and “heretical” aspects of Mithraism, retained Jashn-e-Mehregan and Yalda or “The Birth.”
Iranians celebrated Yalda and decorated an evergreen tree, the sarve. The sarve (Rocket Juniper – what a name! – also known as the cypress tree), being straight, upright and resistant to the cold weather (symbol of hardship) was thought appropriate, to represent Mitra. The younger girls had their “wishes” symbolically wrapped in colorful silk cloth and hung them on the tree with lots of presents for Mitra, to answer their prayers.
As you may know, Pope Leo in the fourth century, after almost destroying the temple of Mitra (A.D. 376), in his campaign against Mitraism — and in the good old Christian tradition, “If you can't claim it, imitate it” — proclaimed the 25th of December as Christ's birthday instead of January 6th, a date, by the way, that is still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as the Armenians.
Again in the same tradition, Luther, the famous German reformer, in the 18th century (1756, I believe), having learned of the Yalda sarve tree, introduced the Christmas tree to the Germans. As sarves were not much known in Germany, as indeed in most of Europe, the chosen tree became a genus of pine which was abundant in Europe.
So now with or without the children at home, we decorate a small sarve with a star on top and many presents, not necessarily for Mitra, but to my ancestors ant for my children and hopefully soon to my grandchildren. Happy Yalda and greetings of the season to all you Iranians — no matter what your religion.