To answer this question, we must first understand the connection between ancient Persia, the Wise men, the birth of Jesus, modern-day Persia (Iran), and how persecution unites them all. Did you know that Iran has a historic significance all over the Bible? From Esther saving Israel to King Cyrus paying for the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, Iran has always played and will continue to play a major role in the biblical narrative. Let’s take the wise men for example. Did you know that the wise men were Persian? The Iranians were the first people to recognize and worship Jesus as Messiah. Let’s follow the Christmas story as it plays out so we can see how Iran is a major player in the Christmas narrative.
A star shone in the East, where wise men from modern-day Iran felt compelled to follow the once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event passed down to them by Daniel the prophet of God. When they reached Jerusalem, Herod demanded to know about this “king of the Jews.” So the Magi sensed what he was up to and made their way to Bethlehem, where they presented their gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus, the toddler (The greek word paidion). That night, they were warned in a dream to return to their country by another route because Herod was about to launch a campaign to massacre the innocents.
This is the incident described in the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18) in which Herod the Great, king of Judea, orders the execution of all male children, who were two years old and under. Jesus and His family knew what persecution tasted like from a very young age. Mary and Joseph were also awoken in the night by an angel and urged to flee in the cover of night to Egypt, where they escaped the wrath of Herod.
Persecution and the Christmas Story
Persecution is and has always been at the center of the Christmas story because Jesus came to rescue the lost and crush Satan’s head. This cosmic battle still rages on today. As Christians celebrate Christmas in Iran, they find comfort in the similarities between their story and the story of the birth of Christ. Some can say believers from Iran go through similar trials to worship Christ as they face persecution daily from their government leaders. Just as Mary and Joseph went into hiding to escape being killed by Herod, members of the underground church left their homes to protect their families.
Like the wise men, believers have received dreams and visions of the “Man in White”, guiding them to a real and tangible relationship with the Messiah. Many have had “power encounters” with Jesus, just as Mary and Joseph had encounters with the angel. In this way, the Christmas story remains more relevant than ever to Christians who put their lives on the line for their faith. Despite the persecution, the Iranian church loves to celebrate Christmas together. It’s a time to gather and experience the peace Jesus brought, even in dangerous areas of the world. But how do the celebrations differ from celebrations in America? These five questions will give you a glimpse into Christmas in Iran.
So how do Christians celebrate Christmas in Iran?
Underground Christians face additional challenges in celebrating Christmas, as they may not have access to the same resources and support as Christians in other countries. They have to be more creative and resourceful in finding ways to celebrate and are more cautious in order to avoid detection by the authorities.
For Christians in Iran, the Christ child is central to the holiday.
While American celebrations can center on gifts and cookies, Iranian believers focus on the cheer of proclaiming Christ the King when many around them will not. Muslim countries need the good news of great joy. This holiday brings opportunities for Christians in Iran to meet in secret with fellow believers and reflect on the peace Jesus brings to places filled with violence and oppression. Since Christianity is not a state religion, Iranian Christians appreciate the opportunity to worship together even more!
When is Christmas celebrated?
Because of the intense persecution the underground church will face if discovered, they cannot celebrate on December 25th. Instead, they choose an alternative day to gather in a safe location. Any decorations or Christmas-themed items must be subtle so they don’t attract attention. In years past, members of liturgical churches celebrated Christmas on Epiphany, which is at the beginning of January and commemorates the wise men’s visit. Whenever Christians choose to celebrate, it is a joyful time. No fear or caution can keep them from remembering the Savior’s birth together.
Do they have traditions as we do in the west?
Every culture has different foods and traditions associated with Christmas festivities. In Iran, two people groups participate in the holiday through their own cultural traditions. Armenian and Assyrian people celebrate with traditional Armenian foods and lore. Both people groups have historically been Christian within predominantly Islamic communities. Joined by Catholics, protestants, and Evangelicals, Christians comprise less than 1% of the Iranian population but are growing at around a 20% rate. So the number of Iranians celebrating is minimal compared to other Western countries but some traditions carry over.
There are a number of traditions and customs that are associated with Christmas in Iran, including a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, known as “khetum,” which typically includes a variety of dishes, including roast chicken or lamb, dried fruits, nuts, and pomegranates. Some exchange gifts on Christmas Day, either as a way to celebrate the holiday or to honor the tradition of the three wise men who brought gifts to Jesus.
Do Iranians have a Santa Character and what gifts does he bring?
Santa is very popular among children celebrating, but the Persian people know him as Bābā Noel. They don’t expect gifts from him because gifts are exchanged between family members. Instead, they tell the story of Bābā Noel and view him as a symbol of charity and prosperity. Families exchange gifts, like chocolates, candies, and sweets. Some Persian Christians participate in a fast from dairy or meat in the days or weeks leading to the holiday and consider Christmas a day of feasting. On Christmas, they often take communion together. Iranian Christians prepare a traditional chicken stew called “harissa” to celebrate. They also commonly cook a roast turkey. In addition, many love a warm cup of coffee to sip throughout the day.
How do Christmas celebrations in Iran differ from ours?
For Western believers, Christian feasts and festivals can be celebrated openly. Much of the traditional Christmas music on the radio has central Christian themes. Christmas carols are sung through the streets, and nativities appear in media and decorations. This simply cannot happen in a place where Christianity is forbidden. In Iran, Christmas music doesn’t play on the radio and the streets aren’t lined with Christmas decorations. All they have is the Bible itself. Their Christmas is simple – they tell the story of Jesus. That might sound nice for believers who have gotten sick of the over-commercialized holiday.
The true meaning of Christmas is simple- celebrating the birth of the Savior of the world. The joy, peace, and hope that Jesus brings are relevant in every country and among every people. The simplicity of it does not minimize the depth of how meaningful the birth of Jesus was. Even the angels gathered to burst out in song and light up the night sky. If the heavens cannot remain silent, then even in an area where Christianity is persecuted, Jesus will be there. The Iranian Christian’s happiness is not dependent on circumstances or safety. Their joy is in the Lord, making Christmas one of the most joyous times of the year!
Encourage Iranian Christians this Christmas
God started a movement years ago in Iran that is still vibrant and active. This Christmas in Iran, God is providing disciples opportunities to share the gospel with their friends and neighbors in a very sad time in their country’s history. Will you consider praying for Iran and the underground church? GCM is raising $2 million right now to help support the efforts of the underground church. To make disciples in the darkest places and beyond by bringing relief to build relationships with the lost, love the lost to salvation in Christ, coach believers to launch churches, and plant churches to create movement. This Christmas might be bittersweet as they grieve loved ones who are no longer with them, but this can open doors for them to make disciples and spread the light of Jesus. Please partner monthly with us this Christmas!
When you give to the underground church, you give towards
- Transportation for evangelism and discipleship meetings
- Indigenous project management
- Disciple-making facility rental and utilities
- Medical packs and humanitarian aid
- Food supplies to help with the food scarcity
- Prayer mobilization
- And so much more