BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
In Tehran, when I was growing up, my father’s side of the family belonged to the Armenian Evangelical Church, which was founded by Protestant Missionaries from United States in the mid 1800s. The church was situated in the old part of Tehran on Ghavam-Saltaneh street. The few acres of its sprawling grounds included two schools and living quarters for the American missionaries.
Since American missionaries presided over that church, my father’s family celebrated Christmas on December 25. My mother’s side belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church and they observed Christmas on January 6 as most Armenians do.
Usually I can recall things from the past quite well, however I cannot recall exactly how we celebrated on December 25 at my paternal grandmother’s home. But I do remember that the Evangelical church had a youth program where we learned Christmas Carols. My mother was not very keen about the program and didn’t want me to participate, because it was conducted in Farsi and our peers and instructors were proselytized Muslims. However, I loved these church activities and have many fond memories of our outings and all other programs.
In the days before December 25 at the youth program, we learned Christmas carols that were translated into Farsi. We also learned carols in English. Leading up to Christmas, the elders of the church drove us around in cars to visit different Christian homes so we could go caroling. Today, hearing Christmas Carols, takes my mind to the youth program. Without question singing Carols is a memory that I always will cherish it. I’m glad that I didn’t obey my mom and insisted to participate in the youth program.
In Tehran, the celebration of Christmas was not big. New Year’s Eve was the excuse for major festivities. All the hoopla, the gift giving, the decorations, the “Holiday Tree” were for celebrating the New Year, not Christmas. Santa came on New Year’s Eve and we opened our gifts on the New Year’s Day.
I sometimes think that it would have been so much better, if, here in the “West,” Santa would come for the New Year instead of Christmas. Then all children from every religion could enjoy the charm of Santa Claus. In reality, what does Santa have to do with the birth of Jesus?
Back to my memories of Armenian Christmas in Tehran: On January 5 we had our Christmas dinner around the table at my maternal grandmother’s home. The traditional food included smoked fish, pilaf and koukou. We had the same menu for Easter too. I’m not sure how the dish became the traditional menu of Iranian-Armenians. I think the koukou (a cake of greens & eggs) and the pilaf were adopted from Persian cuisine, and fish is a staple of Armenian tradition. Red wine was always present on the table and the “holy-cracker ??????” was brought from church and was cracked and served in the wine. The tradition also dictated to burn incense (?????- Frankincense) Which I love the smell of it. Another custom that has fazed-out was after Christmas and Easter for almost two weeks priests would visit the homes and bless them.
Christmas and Easter dinners have occupied an important part in our culture. During dinner our elders told us stories about how they celebrated the holy days in old times. My Mom always recalls that her father insisted that for Christmas the dinner could be served after the sun set but Easter dinner had to be served while the sun was still up. My grandfather was born in a village and his family moved to Tabriz when he was young. So the comment that my mother remembers from his father tells me that Armenians living in villages in Iran, also kept the tradition of having Christmas and Easter dinner.
The best part of the Christmas was when on January 6 we had the home ready for visitors. It was a tradition that the women stayed at home and men went from home to home 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 and to say Merry Christmas – they had a shot of brandy and had a chocolate and off they went to the next home. Sometimes they brought their kids with them, and that’s how we stayed in touch with distant relatives.
My dad was a translator and worked with mostly Jewish and Muslim merchants. On January 6th, all his clients came to visit us. The house had such a festive spirit. We were dressed in our best clothes and the house was decorated “to the T” and the food was overflowing. Dad’s clients brought us nice expensive gifts, such as huge vases, bowls, platters and trays of silver sterling or hand-painted miniatures in rich marquetry (khatam-kari) frames. We kids received gold coins. Usually Dad was not home because according to the tradition he had to visit other relatives but Mom received the visitors graciously.
Two years ago I had the opportunity to walk from my home to my Mom’s for “Jour-orhnek” dinner – Blessed-water – that’s what we call the Armenian Christmas. To get to her home I had to cross small residential streets in Glendale. While walking, it was so fun to peek through the windows and see some dinner tables ready inside the homes. The mood was so festive. I noticed people arriving by car or on foot, with their hands full of gifts or dishes of food that they had prepared. I could even smell the burning of the incense while passing by homes. It is needless to say because it is an Armenian hallmark: women were coiffed beautifully and men were in their best suits. I was overjoyed to see how in these “Odar aperoom,” (on the foreign shores) we Armenians are thriving and the traditions are alive and well. I can see without question that our next generation will continue the customs that we have brought with us from the old countries.