Don’t know what makes me think of the old saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” It sounds rather hostile, doesn’t it? But I have always been good at “Joining them” even where “beating them” hasn’t been the issue. As a child, I joined the village kids on my father’s farms and played their games. As a young adult, I wore a headscarf -- way back before it became mandatory -- so I could work in the earthquake-stricken city of Ghaen, where women observed hejab. Like a chameleon, I adapt and try to blend into my surrounding.
Last week, a friend and I were driving past a Christmas tree sign when I said, “Except for buying the kids’ gifts, I haven’t done a thing for Christmas!”
“I hate Christmas!” she declared.
She hates any celebration, be it Iranian, American or otherwise. She must be the only Iranian who hates even Norooz and nor would she go near turkey at Thanksgiving. In the ten years that we’ve lived in this town, I only recall one gathering at her house, so I had assumed she wasn’t social. But how could anyone hate Christmas when it seems to bring out the best in most people?
I shrugged and said, “I enjoy celebrating it with my kids.”
She glared at me. “What’s Christmas to you?” and her tone indicated how ridiculous I sounded. I thought about her question for a moment. She was absolutely right. What is Christmas to the non-Christian, nonbeliever me? My mind flew back to the first time we had ever celebrated this holiday.
Our little girl must have been a little older than two and we were expecting our second baby when one day Lilly came home from nursery school, holding up a paper star covered in glitter.
“Oh, how beautiful,” I said, “Did you make that star?”
She pouted. “It’s not a star.”
“No? Then what is it?”
“A Christmas tree!”
On the way home, I made sure to point out a few decorated pine trees. “See? Now that’s a Christmas tree.”
Normally, I stayed in touch with what went on in my child’s world and attended most of her school functions, but my husband had more of a knack for understanding her. No sooner had he come home than our little girl ran to him. “Daddy, daddy, see my Christmas tree?”
He picked her up, studied the star and nodded in admiration. “Wow! That sure would look lovely on your Christmas tree!”
Late that night, as I went to check on my little one, I noticed the evergreen branch my husband must have placed in a pot for her, with the glittering star taped to its top.
The next year, our second child took much of our attention, and to cheer Lilly up, my husband bought her a small Christmas tree to hang her hand-made ornaments on. As the years went by, our tree grew, its ornaments turned more elaborate and the presents under it multiplied. Here we were, having “joined them.”
Celebrating Christmas, New Year, July 4th or any other major holidays failed to take away the glamour of our Norooz and nor did it make us any less Persian. I made a point of fully celebrating the Persian New Year in Chicago years before the revolution had started and at a time when some Iranians were too “chic” to bother with such old traditions. To this day Norooz remains the biggest festivity around our house, but while our kids were growing, Christmas celebrations provided a home that resembled others, giving them a tradition to share with their peers.
This love-hate relationship among immigrants toward their new home will never cease to amaze me. Despite the fact that our place of birth puts us under the category of “possible threats”, most of us enjoy a comfortable life and a semblance of security. Yet what seems to remain is the “us” versus “them” issue and a resistance to anything that might indicate we have “joined them.”
Iranians must be among the most generous gift givers of this season, yet many make a point of not putting any lights around their homes, not decorating a tree and I even know of one family who forbids their children from any gift giving around December. True as it may be that Christmas belongs to Christians, at this point it has turned into a global, if not commercial, festivity. What a refreshing change it is to those of us who have so far associated religion with sheer morbidity. If it takes a tree to make my kids happy, so be it!
I’m proud of who I am and the fact that my language remains pure and has not changed into Finglisee, the fact that my kids prepare for Norooz a month in advance, and that Chai remains our beverage of choice have to be clear indications of my Iranian-ness.
I may have been out of Iran for forty years, but Iran will never be out of me, not for a second, not in this lifetime. I join the world in celebration and, instead of blocking joy, I do what I can to spread the cheer. If that seems so unbearable to my community that they see it as having “joined them,” then maybe it’s about time!
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