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Gift of Magi
How to celebrate Christmas with our Christian neighbors



December 16, 2006

There is a portion of the Iranian Diaspora community that is not sure what to make of Christmas.  So it haphazardly, half-heartedly, ignores or celebrates it.  The nagging concern is how this holiday relates to all that is Iranian, Middle Eastern, or Islamic.   Do Iranians lose a part of their identity and heritage by partaking of the festivities alien to their traditional or sacred calendar?  In the meanwhile, neighbors, co workers, and – the toughest part – children continue to ask questions.   

Whether they take Christmas as a holy-day (a religious occasion) or a holiday (a social ritual), Iranians have reasons enough to celebrate it and to add their own story, making it more festive for grownups and more fun for children.  Here is the scoop: Iranians enter the Christmas picture four times: three times as Iranians and a fourth time as Muslims.   I’ll explain but, first, a few words on the origin and nature of Christmas. 

What is today celebrated as Christmas replaced the Roman "Saturnalia", a carnival dedicated to the mischievous God of chaos Saturn, that coincided with an even older celebration, the winter solstice, (December 24th according to the Julian calendar), which, properly calculated, falls on the shortest day -- and the longest night -- of the year; our “Yalda”.  So, think about it, we already celebrate the celestial event that signaled the Roman revelry on which Christmas is based. 

Rome’s first Christian Emperor Constantine cleverly fixed the biblical story of the birth of Christ (the "anointed" one; Messiah, or Masih) on this date, preserving people’s festive mood while replacing Jesus with Saturn, thus asserting a new religion.  Understandably, the Roman Catholic Church followed suit and the rest is Christmas history.  The actual time of the birth of Jesus is, of course, unknown, (religious scholars have guessed it closer to spring, the traditional time for census – the task for which, scriptures tells us, Josef and Mary set out on their fateful journey).  For all these reasons (uncertainty of the date, remnants of pagan worship, and the frivolity of the festivities) strict Christians have been known to object to the occasion throughout history. They even briefly outlawed it in England in 1647.  Even today, some Christian denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to recognize Christmas.  They point to the pagan origins of various Christmas rituals: the pine tree, the mistletoe, the lights, you name it.  Lack of historical proof, of course, doesn’t dampen the spirits of the faithful who feel they "are" celebrating Christ’s birthday.  He must have been born on “some day” right?  

Now, As Iranians, Middle Easterners, and Muslims (secular or practicing, minimal or maximal) we are mindful of how we are supposed to integrate ourselves within our host communities during these festive weeks.  Neither "assimilation" (melting pot) nor "pluralism" (salad bar) quite describes where we are and what serves our purposes.  Fortunately for us, there is a new term: "Incorporation", which means new migrants (or better, “trans-migrants”), do not face the bleak choice of either locking themselves up in their native culture or losing themselves in the habits of their host culture.  They can -- thanks to telephone, cheap plane tickets, and internet -- keep contact with their native culture while taking full advantage of the material and cultural resources of the host communities.  They are becoming culturally "amphibious" (not "doubly marginalized" as some pessimistic social scientists suspected a few decades ago).  As such, Iranians are a "model immigrant community".  We do this pretty well, but we could do better!  Here are four ways we can “incorporate” Christmas.

First, we can spruce up and better advertise our Yalda celebration.  It has as much of a right to be part of the season’s colorful celebrations as Hanukah and Kwanza, don’t you think?  It is ours, and it is religiously neutral; that is an added advantage in these religiously contentious times!

Second, the very idea of a savior born to the world is originally Iranian.  Before there was a Jewish “Messiah” or a Christian “Christ” there was the Zoroastrian “Saoshyant”, the restorer of order and justice to a chaotic and sinful world and the endower of blessings. (Western sources have discussed this but the definitive work on the subject remains “Saoshyant: Mo’ud e Mazdayasna” the masterpiece of the legendary scholar of pre-Islamic Iran, the late Ebrahim Poor Davood). Historians of ideas speculate that Jews who were rescued from the Babylonian slavery and brought to Iran by Cyrus the Great, and who were later authorized to return to ancient Israel took more than the Iranian blessings – and tax revenues -- to rebuild their temple (Ezra, 5); they were also inspired by the Iranian idea of the people’s savior:  This explains the appearance of the notion of Messiah, on which Christianity is based, in Jewish scriptures following these events.    

Third, scholars have reached a near consensus that the three “wise men from the East” (No, they were not “kings”) who came to adore Jesus (Mathew, 2) in the Christmas story could only have been Magi, Zoroastrian priests (“Mogh”, or “Magus” -- rendered as Magoi or Magi – were a hereditary priestly class among Medes, who blended in with the clerical “Moobad” ranks of the Zoroastrian era).  Anyway, this was what early Christians believed.  Centuries later, Marco Polo reported finding the tombs of these magi in “Saveh” a town near today’s Tehran, in Iran.  Regardless of the veracity of such a claim (it is, of course, unverifiable), the story indicates the persistence of the belief among Christians concerning the Persian identity of magi.  

Finally, as Muslims, we believe in the story of the miraculous virgin birth.  Mary is, without doubt, the most revered woman in Quran.  Few people realize that there is more about Mary in Quran than there is in the gospels!  The Chapter of Maryam in Quran (19, 15-34) contains a detailed and curiously touching rendition of the story of nativity, whose dramatic qualities remain, in my view, unexplored, both in the Islamic and the Christian worlds. 

So, as Iranians, Middle Easterners, and Muslim (take your pick, or take all three for the price of one) we come from a culture and a lore intimately intertwined with celestial celebrations (Yalda), the promise a savior (Saoshyant),  adoration of Christ (Magi),  belief in miracles (virgin birth), and above all, the hope for harmony and peace on earth.  Iranians, whether secular or religious (and every religion practiced by Iranians is connected with the story), can appeal to one or more of the above to weave their lives into the joys and hopes of the season.  Spread the word, celebrate, and rejoice. Comment

Mahmoud Sadri is Professor of Sociology at Texas Women's University. He has a doctorate in sociology from New York's New School for Social Research. He is the coauthor, with Aruthur Stinchcombe, of an ariticle in "Durkheim's Divison of Labor: 1893-1993" Presses Universitaires de France, 1993. For more information see his page at the Texas Women's University.

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