Christmas in Iran
Updated: Apr 14
A Brief History
Throughout much of its early history, the land known today as Iran was part of the Persian Empire. The first great dynasty in Iran was founded by Cyrus the Great. It was called the Achaemenid Empire, and ruled from 550 to 330 BC. Following this was the Hellenistic period, ushered in by Alexander the Great. Next came the Parthian dynasty, which ruled the region for nearly 500 years. The Sassanian dynasty followed and lasted until 661 AD, when the Arabs conquered the region bringing Islamic religion and Islamic rule. Over the centuries, there are more invasions, including by the Turks, then the Mongols. Ultimately, Iran ends up being ruled by local dynasties from the 1500s until the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The history of Christianity in Iran goes back to the 2nd century, as noted in Acts 2:9, “Parthians [Iranians], Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia..” were among the first Christian converts at Pentecost. Syriac documents also indicate that towards the beginning of the third century the Christians in the Persian territories had about three hundred and sixty churches, and many martyrs.
The first century Jewish historian Josephus mentions that a king of Adiabene--an ancient kingdom in Assyria--accepted Judaism about AD 36. This conversion event made Arbela a natural center for Jewish Christian mission at an early date. Christianity spread in both towns and cities; by the end of the Parthian period (AD 225), there were Christian communities from Edessa (in modern day Turkey)--an important missionary center-- to Afghanistan.
Although thousands of Persians practiced Christianity, Persia remained Zoroastrian.
When the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity the state religion in Rome, the faith became associated with Iran's enemy. The conversion of Armenians to Christianity and defection of some Armenian army units to Rome led to persecutions that lasted for a century after they had ceased in Rome.
The conquest of Islam in the seventh century put an end to freedom of religion throughout the area. All polytheistic and pagan religions were banned altogether with all other Near and Far Eastern religions. Allah--a term used by Arab Christians since pre-Islamic times-- meaning god, became the only sovereign god. Besides Islam, Christianity and Judaism were accepted as the only other true religions and their holy scriptures were accepted as such. However, their freedom was substantially restricted and their legal status lowered.
The Crusades made things worse for Eastern Christians during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Due to the Crusades, Muslims came to hate all Christians in the Muslim world, while Latin Christians despised the Eastern Christians as heretics. During the Crusades, Latin Christians gained control of the Holy Land, but prevented the local (Eastern) Christians from going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
In 1258, the Mongols conquered Baghdad, which was at the time, the center of the Muslim Empire. For a while, this was favorable for Christians, as the rulers openly declared themselves Christians or were partial to Christianity.However, under later Mongol rulers, many churches and mosques were destroyed and thousands of Christians and Muslims were killed. Turkmen tribes were the next wave of conquerors, but were finally defeated in 1592.
During the last five centuries, Christianity has been tolerated but oppressed. In 1979 when the government was overthrown, the Shah (king) fled the country and Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini became head of the theocratic republic. Iran's government has since been guided by Islamic principles. The Islamic revolution guaranteed religious freedom to Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. These religious groups may even have representatives in Parliament. However, due to Shariat law, non-Muslims are effectively prevented from being employed in governmental positions. Further, it is illegal for churches to preach or distribute materials in Farsi, and proselytizing is forbidden.
Although Iran is now a Muslim majority country, Christmas decor can be seen in may shops across the country, especially in big cities like Tehran, which has a higher concentration of Christians. Most Christians in Iran celebrate Christmas according to the traditions of the Eastern Church. On December 1st they start what is known as the "Little Fast" by avoiding eating animal products. Eastern Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6th according to the Julian calendar, but many churches have services on December 25th as well.
The Christmas dinner is called the "Little Feast" and will often consist of a chicken stew; turkey dinners are becoming popular as well. In the past, gifts were not generally exchanged, but children received new clothes for the occasion. However, gift giving has become more frequent in recent years and children enjoy both gifts and new cloths. Lighting candles, decorating the Christmas tree and singing hymns are parts of the holiday observance. And as in most countries, visiting family and friends is the norm.
Assyrians also celebrate the major Christian holidays including Easter and Christmas according to the Eastern traditions. Easter is seen as the theologically most important holiday as it commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is called Eida Gura or big holiday. Christmas, commemorating the birth of Christ, is called Eida Sura or small holiday. Other Christians celebrate the season according to the traditions of the Western Church.
Before the revolution, New Year's Eve was celebrated in grand style and all major hotels had huge and elaborate parties open to all, including Muslims. Since the revolution, Christians can only celebrate New Year's in their own clubs and neighborhoods and officially Muslims are barred from participating, nevertheless many still join their Christian friends at private parties for a time of merriment and joy.
Although it is not news to most people that the decorating of trees as part of a feast day comes from ancient pagan practices, many may be surprised to discover that this practice originated in Ancient Persia. For more information about the Persian origins of the 'Christmas' tree, search 'Yalda and Christmas Trees.' It is believed that Martin Luther introduced the tree as a symbol of Christianity by bringing it into the home to be decorated. He is said to have likened the Christmas tree to symbols of Christ: new life (being evergreen) and light (the candles used to decorate it).
One of the most iconic symbols of Christmas, the Star of Bethlehem, is also tied directly to the influence of Persians. Persian Zoroastrian priests--Magi-- used their study of the stars to direct them to Jesus as a young child.
As will be discussed in much greater detail on Sunday, Week 4 of Advent, the Magi were stargazers or astrologers. How they came to expect or even seek the sign of the Christ child's star is a matter of speculation. However, a plausible reason would be the influence of Daniel. One of the titles given to Daniel was Chief of the Magi after he interpreted Nebuchadnezzar's dream. As such, he may have entrusted a Messianic prophecy (Numbers 24:17) to a trusted group of Magi.
Babba Nuel is Santa Claus in Persian. Iranians say “Christmas Mubarak” for Merry or Happy Christmas.
Iran's indigenous Christians include an estimated 250,000 Armenians, 32,000 Assyrians, and a small number of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Iranians converted by missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In Iran all ethnic Persians and those from Muslim backgrounds (even if not practicing) are considered Muslims. Anyone who converts to Christianity is declared apostate and could face death. Yet, the number of Muslim background believers coming to Christ in Iran continues to grow greatly regardless of extreme persecution. Many Iranians are curious about the Bible, but Bibles and Christian printed materials in Farsi are illegal. Smuggled Farsi Bibles and materials are quickly put to use. The Internet and broadcasts by radio and satellite TV are providing encouragement, resources, and training for believers as more come to Christ and more underground house churches are established. In recent years, many house churches have been raided, and entire congregations detained, or arrested.
Pray that the laws will change, allowing for freedom of religion.
Pray for the safety and growth of underground house churches
Pray for Christians in Iran’s prisons to have genuine love for their guards and fellow inmates.
Source: Iran Chamber Society, History of Christians and Christianity in Iran