The Iranian Christmas
December 21, 2001
Lecture at the Colorado Persian Society on December 20, 2001.
First of all let me apologize for my harsh voice that is punctuating
my words and sentences with a mixture of dry coughs and hard breaths. It
is the same old Winter again, difficult and miserable, and I have been invaded
by its invisible army of cold weather that comes, conquers your body and
puts you under house arrest for a few days. In these last two days I have
been talking, or perhaps I should say "praying", to the Iranian
Sun God, Mithra, who is supposed to defeat this invisible enemy and bring
back the warmth and health of better times. I, of course, have used cold
medicine as well, just to be on the safe side. You never know which one
will be more effective, prayer or medicine. So, it's always better to use
a mixture of them!
The interesting point is that we, Iranians, did not use to think of a
God called Mithra. Many of us had not even heard of his name. But, for more
than 20 years Iranians all over the world have been getting together at
a night such as tonight and celebrating his mythical birth. Celebration
aside, I would like to say a few words about this strange and highly significant
socio-cultural phenomenon in the contemporary history of my country.
During the last 23 years, millions of Iranians have been driven out of
their motherland due to political, social and economic hardships. And it
has been during this long period of exile that we have begun a new search
for our roots -- not because we are now living as aliens in new habitats
but because we have become emphatically stricken by an alien version of
Islam in our own land. The coming to power of a certain stratum of Shi'ite
clergy in Iran and its forceful imposition of what it sees as "Islamic
rules" has created a certain psychological upheaval in all of us, forcing
us to remember a far-away past when Iran was an independent empire with
its own home-brewed religion(s). We have been reminded that our great country
was invaded, conquered and in many ways, raped by the new Muslim converts
from the Arabian Peninsula some 1400 years ago. The Islamic Revolution seems
like a re-run of that catastrophe!
All through these centuries, we have not accepted that we became Muslims
because of the defeat in the hands of Arabs. First and foremost, we have
resisted in adopting Arabic as our language -- unlike other South Eastern
Muslim nations (from Syria and Iraq to all of North Africa) who accepted
Arabic as a fact of life, losing their language and, thus, their ancient
identities. We still read the Qoran, the Muslim holy book, in its native
language, Arabic, and do not understand it. We say our prayers to Allah
in Arabic and hardly know what we are saying to the Almighty! We have transformed
Arabic Islam and invented many Persian versions of it that suit our own
native needs and concerns, none of which are accepted by the rest of the
In fact, the history of Iran and Iranians during the last 1400 years
could be read as the history of Iranian resistance towards the prevalence
of Arabic culture and traditions. This history has had its periods of inactivity,
as well as many periods of high active endeavors. There are many historical
names we still give to our children that signify such historical struggles.
For example, the two Persian names of Baabak and Afshin remind us of the
bloody resistance movements led by those great men against Arab domination
of Iran. Our great poet, Ferdowsi, was able to preserve our Persian language
single-handedly through his masterpiece, Shaahnaame, merely by emphasizing
the non-Arabic traits of our history and culture. Poets, thinkers and mystics
like Haafez, Mowlaanaa and Sa'di, were instrumental in giving new and humane
interpretations to many brutal and uncivilized traditions that were imposed
on a country with 3,000 years of pre-Islamic history.
And their endeavors were based on their reference to a heritage that
was given to them by their fathers and mothers under the watchful eye of
a hostile political force that burnt libraries, changed historical facts
and fabricated whatever necessary to convert a nation to a completely alien
culture. And 23 years ago we faced one of these moments of high history.
The brand of Islam advocated and implemented by the ruling clergy in what
came to be known as the Islamic Revolution was not one of the home-brewed
Iranian versions of Islam, but a brutal and bloody version that claimed
to be the true Islam of Prophet Mohammad himself. One, of course, could
embark on negating this claim by studying Islamic history and showing the
discrepancies that might be hidden in the former. And many scholars have
been doing so. But, on a national and popular scale, the result of our experience
with the Islamic Revolution was the onset of a fresh search for finding
something mysterious, something that could be called "Iranianism".
Our younger generation, though not directly involved in that Revolution,
had to face this problematic too. They had to accept their Iranian identity
in the eyes of non-Iranian environments that encircled them and looked at
them as foreigners. But, at the same time, Iranians had to prove to the
world that what was being presented as Iranian culture by the zealot Islamic
government is not what really Iranian. So, two generations, with two different
agendas, were forced to search their common roots, hidden under the surface
of a thick historical mishmash.
The onset of research for the understanding of our roots opens our eyes
to ancient ways of seeing the world, including our true original "religion".
But what am I saying? A religion yet again? Aren't we presently escaping
the atrocities of a religious oligarchy? So why should we find refuge in
the arms of another religion, one that is even older than the present one?
To me, the fact of the matter is that there are always two kinds of religions
in all societies. We can call them "natural religions" and "supernatural
(or abstract) religions". Human societies all began with the natural
Natural religions are systems of interpreting the world around us and
making its ever-repeating movements acceptable to our inquisitive brains,
upon the limited knowledge and understanding we have in each historical
period. In this process, elements of nature are first "personified".
They come to be seen and begin to behave like human beings. And then, being
much more powerful than the fragile man, they become regarded as super-persons
who have their own independent agenda and affect human life in so many ways.
We have to learn how to deal with these super powers that are ever present
in our daily lives.
We have to attract their love, affection and emotions.To do so, we have
to have affectionate and emotional relationships with them. We have to live
with them in peace. We should not be afraid of them. In fact, they are all
providing us with all we need for our existence. In a way, we are mixed
with them, we are part of their world and it is our coexistence with them
that can preserve life in peace and prosperity.
On the other hand, abstract religions are the result of a much later
stage in the development of human societies. They reflect the advent of
civil life in cities with central governments and complicated legal requirements.
At the center of this new religious universe comes the shape of a single
omnipresent and omnipotent God who has created us and wants us to live according
to his rules and laws. This God is an abstract one who is not tangible through
our senses and daily experiences. He talks to us in installments and through
prophets, saints and, ultimately, the Church or the Mosque as the supposed
embodiment of the sacred heritage of the religion.
Living under the rules of an abstract God is hard and difficult. These
rules are against human desire for freedom of action and expression. And,
then, once a religious institution becomes able to attain political power,
a harsh drive towards uniformity and non-individuality begins. This is against
human nature too. It is based on coercion and fear, threat and torture.
And it ultimately forces its subject to find a way to curb its imposing
might. This is always a high turning point of a history. This is that important
historical moment when a nation begins to find a way out of deadlock by
searching for its very old identity.
In recent times, we experienced such a situation nearly 100 years ago
during the Constitutional Revolution. A 100 years before that, Iranians
were pushed by their religious leaders into a war with their neighboring
power, Russia. They were shamefully defeated and crushed by the might of
a modernized Russian army. They lost vast areas of their country and found
out that their God did not help them in their "holy war" (Jihaad)
against Russian foes. This experience was the beginning of a search for
a new national identity. Our intellectuals looked for something helpful
amongst the scattered reminiscences of our pre-Islamic history and came
up with a total package that could modernize Iran and give some kind of
needed glory to it. Remember Malkam Khan? Mirza Agha Khan e Kermani? Taghizadeh?
Sadegh Hedayat? Ahmad Kasravi? Nima Yushij? Pour-Davood? Go and read them
and see what they are presenting in their writings. The important thing
is that here again, what had come to our aid was our pre-Islamic heritage.
And what I want to show you tonight is the fact that we again are resorting
to the same heritage to find our new answers for our new problems.
All through our history, we have oscillated between the heritage of a
natural religion developed by our forefathers and the rule of some abstract
religion that has sprung out of the necessities of our civil life. It has
delimited our freedom and tainted our lives with unnatural conditions. The
important thing to note is that if the abstract religion has changed, say
from Zoroastrianism to Islam, the natural religion has been intact, each
time appearing in a new disguise to suit our new needs. In every historical
period the abstract religion has done its best to annihilate this natural
religion and delete it from the communal memory of us Iranians and, at each
high historical moment, that natural religion has reappeared out of many
ordinary traditions, rituals, and festivities that punctuate our daily lives
to revive our hope for a better future.
Think for a moment about the power that is hidden in an ordinary but
highly popular festivity called "Chaar-shanbe Suri". This last
Spring, it made the religious rulers of Iran so furious that they had to
put hundreds of young participants in jail. It is a powerful celebration
because it is a ritual and a common social action that is not related to
any abstract and institutionalized religion with its rigid rules. There
is no sacred act or thing in it. It is not an act of worshipping fire. You
make make a fire from bundles of thistle and thorns, then jump over them
with joy and enthusiasm. You become mixed with an element of nature, dance
with its flames and absorb its kind warmth. You do not think of an abstract
God who is sitting on a thrown somewhere in Heaven and expects you to suppress
your joy and behave in his ever lasting and expanding presence.
So, it is this unifying power of our ancient natural religion that has
helped us preserve our identity and humanity all through this long history
of wars, victories and defeats. Therefore, let us think about this unique
source of cultural survival in some more details.
Historical facts show Iranians were a part of Aryan tribes that lived
in the meadows of Central Asia. Some 8,000 years ago, due to natural causes
still exposed to scientific debate, they began to move out of their habitats
and scatter in all directions. Some of went to lands now known as the Far
East. Some went to Indian sub-continent, some to present Europe and some,
mostly Medes, Parthians and Parsies (together known as "Iranians),
came to the Iranian plateau from both sides of the Caspian Sea, settling
in present day Khorasan in eastern Iran and Fars/Pars in the south and Azarbaijan
in the west. This process of immigration took more than 5,000 years until
permanent settlement. Studies in ancient languages show that even after
thousands of years, languages used by these variegated immigrant tribes
have preserved a lot of common features. That is why we hear linguists and
archeologists talk about Indo-European languages, with the "Iranian"
languages branch being a major offshoot.
These Arian tribes brought along their natural religion with them too.
That is why, for example, we can see the same natural gods in both Iranian
and Indian mythologies. For Arian tribes, there existed a pantheon of natural
gods, consisting of a god for every natural phenomenon. Amongst these natural
gods, Mithra was considered the central figure. It represented the Sun,
the source of life and growth. In contrast to Arab tribes of the Arabian
Peninsula who were exposed to the deadly heat of an ever-shining sun that
inspired them to conceive their gods. Aryan tribes were in love with the
sun. It is not an accidental fact that the word "Mehr" (a later
pronunciation for Mithra), has a double meaning in the Persian language.
It means "sun" as well as "love". Mithra is the protector
of life, loving emotions, relationships and contracts and the structure
of the whole universe. And, on the earth, he is represented by the element
of fire. In fact, Aryans were not worshipers of fire but esteemed it as
a part of the sun whose real embodiment was the gracious Mithra.
In this relation, it is interesting to look at the story of Mithra's
birth: The universe was cold, dark and condensed into a hard stone. And
Mithra was born out of that germinal stone in the longest and darkest night
of the year -- the winter solstice. The similarity of this myth with the
story of discovery of fire narrated by Ferdowsi is also interesting. He
says an Iranian mythological king made the first fire by pounding a piece
of stone on a boulder. Here, too, fire is born out of the bulky and hard
body of the stone.
The selection of winter solstice as the birth night of Mithra is also
significant. The sun is born in the longest night of the year. With the
coming of dawn, night is on retreat and days grow longer. Iranians called
the first day of winter "Khorram Ruz" that meant "Happy Day".
Thus, they believed that in the depth of darkness, there was light and in
the depth of stone there was fire. You can follow this symbolism of natural
elements all through Iranian culture and literature: Hope is born when you
are totally desperate; Justice comes at the height of despotic atrocities.
The festivities of Mithra's birth are all based on the requirements of
an agricultural community with natural means of survival. Summer is gone,
the weather is cold and harsh, there is no work left to be done. It is time
to gather around the warmth of fire during the long nights and talk about
better days ahead. We can dance around the fire, sing songs, and feast on
nuts, raisins and fruits. Then we go to sleep with the confidence that the
sun, the great Mithra, is on his way to prevail the next day.
As a natural religion, Mithraism was not institutionalized. Rather itwas
scattered and individualized. It was based on the unity of man and universe
and the ability of the former to rediscover this unity through his love
for Mithra. Mithra is the mother of all Eastern mystical faiths. Buddhism,
Manicheism, as well as true Persian Erfan, are some of its many interpretations.
But what makes it so relevant to our lives here in the West is the fact
that Christianity, as we know it, is also a mixture of a primitive form
of Christian faith and a highly developed version of Mithraism in the fourth
century of the Christian calendar. This amalgamation took place in the Roman
Mithraism had never become the state religion of the Persian Empire.
For more than a thousand years, Iranian kings refused to accept and adopt
a state religion. Religion was seen as a personal and community-related
matter. It as nothing to do with government. This, of course, does not mean
that the king and his administrators did not have their own religious beliefs.
But we see ancient kings praying to different gods worshiped by their peoples.
Freedom of religion was the key to success in their empire building. Even
the advent of the abstract religion of Zoroaster (Zartosht) in the Iranian
plateau did not put an end to the prevalence of Mithraism amongst Iranians.
It was only after the adaptation of Christianity by the Roman Empire that
the Sassanid kings of Iran decided to unify their people under the banner
of a state religion. Many brutal policies followed, which ultimately caused
its demise in the hands of the Muslim-Arab invaders.
Meanwhile Iranian and the Roman empires were engaged in war more than
300 years, a war that inevitably brought them together and worked also as
a cultural liaison between the two fighting nations. Mithraism crept into
the Roman Empire in many ways but mostly through Iranian soldiers captured
in battlefields. Soon it caught the attention of army leaders and worshiping
Mithra and being a Roman soldier became one. Here, Mithraism was institutionalized
and gained fixed rituals and ceremonies. What we read about Roman Mithraism
is not the faith that existed in Iran.
At the same time, and outside the roman army barracks, a new religion
was spreading amongst the mobs as well. It was the worship of the son of
the Jewish God who came to be known as Jesus Christ. The idea was rejected
by the Jewish authorities but was welcomed by the oppressed people. Within
three centuries Christianity became so prevalent that Roman emperors were
forced to accept Christianity as their state religion. This was to be different
from what people had accepted in their hearts. It was to be a mixture of
militant Mithraism and popular Christian faith with some other added ingredients
from Greek mythology and even Egyptian history. There ensued an interesting
process of unification by which Mithra and Christ became one. Mithra's birth
night became the birthday of Christ and many of the Mithraic rituals were
adapted as Christian ones.
I do not intend to go into details of this unification. The important
thing I want to emphasize is the fact that we have embarked on a search
for our true identity and have come up with a lot of information that's
going to take our origins out of the Arabic/Muslim culture and put it as
the source of that culture and civilization that was developed by Christian
Europeans and Americans. We have discovered that our roots are the same,
our languages belong to the same family and, now, our religious rituals,
as far as they adhere to their natural frameworks and perspectives, come
from the same source.
It is both surprising and delightful to look at Christmas trees and their
decorations and remind ourselves that this is the same evergreen or Cypress
tree (Sarv) our ancestors used to decorate in their cottages for the birth
night of Mithra. This universality of our New Year festivities opens the
door to a more humanistic and naturalistic perspectives. Every Sunday --
that is, the day of the Sun God! -- we should remember that it is really
Mithra, the Arian-Iranian God of the Sun and love, who is also being worshipped
in every Christian church.
Every Christmas, we should remind ourselves that it is Yalda again. During
every Yalda we celebrate both the rebirth of the sun and the birth of a
man who is supposed to have come for the salvation of human kind. This is
the magic of cultural genetics at work. We are all from the same origin
and same sequence of genes. We are a configuration of natural elements.
A mixture of wind, earth, water and fire. And between two brackets of "ashes",
it is the fire that symbolizes our life and well-being. Fire makes us and
swallows us, we make fire and coexist with it. We are the created the and
creator. As Mithra is.
Let me finish my words with a line of poetry by our great poet, Hafez,
who, I believe, was a Mithraic thinker and artist. By the magic of his pne,,
he reverses the cause-effect relationship between the Sun and the life of
the human kind and writes:
Out of the hidden fire in my chest
The sun is just a flame
Keeping the sky ablaze.