Santa Claus Is Coming To Tehran
December 7, 2018
Last December, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted, “A very happy and peaceful Christmas to all” and that he hoped that “Christ’s universal message be embraced.”
Christmas is a big deal in Iran. It is not only celebrated by Iran’s small Christian communities, but also by tens of millions of Muslims who consider Jesus a prophet. While the Islamic Republic normally bristles at foreign influence, Iranians embrace almost every trope of Western celebrations of Christmas: fir trees and wreaths, strings of lights, and Santa figurines line the streets and shop windows of major Iranian cities in the run-up to December 25.
Other secularized Christian holidays, though, such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day, are out of bounds. Rebellious teens don costumes every October 31 to the consternation of authorities. On February 14, restaurants fill with young couples celebrating, and house parties rock until late in the evening. Security services are on the lookout for businesses promoting the holidays, but public enthusiasm continues unabated.
And despite the Christmas cheer, Christians in Iran face stiff restrictions. At least 193 Protestant Christians were arrested in 2016 as presumed converts to Western denominations. Staunch efforts to prevent conversions among Muslims mandate Armenians and Assyrians to check identification at churches to prevent Muslims from entering.
But the restrictions do little to dampen the warm hospitality on the Armenian streets of major Iranian cities every December. There, Muslims and non-Muslims alike line up in droves to find the perfect tree while sipping traditional Armenian coffee from decidedly untraditional Santa Claus mugs.
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.