Christmas celebrations in Iran may sound like a contradiction in terms for a country dominated by Islam and known for its harsh and cruel treatment of Christians. However, Iran is unique in the Middle East in allowing the festivities to carry on unhindered and without persecution, according to CNN. Iranian Christians and other citizens are free to celebrate the holiday openly and an increasing number are choosing to participate. For many, however, it may be less of a religious observance and more of a time to be happy. Celebrating Christmas allows them to shake off the normally oppressive governmental policies and let joy and fun replace the depressing tyranny that colors their daily lives.
Public celebrations in Iran include church gatherings and shop decorations. Christmas banners, Santa Claus, candy canes and snow globes are frequently spotted among the festive decor. The landscape sports an unusual amount of westernization in a country characterized by ethnocentric thinking around Islamic ideals and philosophies with rigid penalties for those who dare to think outside the box.
Christmas observances have been slowly gaining in popularity over the last several years, crossing the lines of religious divisions in Iran. The approximately 200,000, largely Armenian Christians freely mix with the Muslims in seeking out trees, decorations and other signs of Christmas cheer. During this time of year, the Iranian government seems curiously willing to ignore the links to Christianity and the West and hold off its usual attempts at censorship and iron-fisted control of those they consider non-Islamic blasphemers and dissidents.
In most of the Islamic dominated region, Christmas is limited to hotels where foreign visitors hold their own celebrations. In Tehran and other major cities around the country, the Christmas ornament business has grown dramatically since the Islamic Revolution. Nowhere else in the Middle East are the citizens free to celebrate Christmas like they do in Iran, one Iranian-Armenian citizen explained to Al-Monitor. Media coverage of the festive events has even become a familiar sight on state-sponsored television stations and news agencies.
Although Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet, it is not without irony that in the face of the Christian pastors who have made intimate acquaintance with the inside of Iranian prisons for the sake of their faith, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Christmas message seemed to validate Christian beliefs. Ahmadinejad gave tribute to Jesus as a “messenger of humanism and grace,” calling for a return to the teachings of God’s appointed messengers. He indicated that such a restoration is the only way to save people from the multi-faceted epidemic of cultural, moral and social crises that face humanity today.
The religious symbolism may be lost on many Iranian citizens. However, the pursuit of happiness is a universal instinct so any excuse to let loose and live it up a little is bound to meet with public approval. While hesitant to publicly identify himself for fear of running afoul of reprisals from government censors, one 20-something man explained that Iranians are no different from the rest of humanity. When given the choice, they will choose “happy moments” just as fast as the next person. The growing tendency to observe western holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Halloween give Muslims a chance to let off some steam in the pressure cooker of government control that strictly regulates most of their lives.
The Islamic republic has a reputation as a coercive theocracy with a distressing habit of persecuting religious minorities and suppressing their active expressions of faith in the 98 percent Muslim country. However, the youth movement’s trend toward Christmas and other holiday celebrations stands as a beacon for human rights and freedom of expression in Iran. Nonetheless, Iranian officials will brook no tolerance for those that renounce Islam and capital punishment stands as the fate of those that try to leave the faith. Even so, the grim reality of Islamic oppression is reported to secretly drive many young people to adopt Christianity in an attempt to break away from the tyranny.
In spite of popular claims that Islam is a religion of peace, University of California at Irvine historian and Iranologist, Touraj Daryaee points out that the experiences of those living with the militant practices of the regime tells quite a different story. The contrast of their daily reality with Christianity’s message of love and peace is an effective draw. The governmental policies do not do justice to the warm and loving hearts of the common citizen in Iran, whether Christian or Muslim.
Furthermore, the isolationist policies of the government are wearing thin with the younger generation in Iran who only want to be part of the larger international community. If that means participating in Christmas and other non-Islamic holidays and ceremonies, so be it. Regardless of religious affiliation, they just want to fit in with the rest of the world and Christmas is the time of year they can make their voices heard in the cry to restore a sense of joy and peace on earth.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser
CNN: Iranians Seek Relief in Christmas Celebrations
Al-Monitor: Iran, Christians, Armenians Christmas Rouhani
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty: Christmas in Tehran
Image Courtesy of Stephen Woods’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License