Green Christmas in Iran

Environmentalists urge Iran’s Christian Armenians to go artificial and save a real Christmas tree.

By Maryam Jalali in Tehran Every day, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and many senior Iranian officials of Iran go past Tehran’s oldest flower shop to reach the presidential Palace. Around Christmas, the window display normally has fir trees on sale.

This year, however, there were no Christmas trees on view ahead of the Christian festival, which falls on January 6 because of the eastern calendar used by Iran’s Armenian minority.

But this was not the result of government restrictions on Christian practice. Instead, the shop’s owner explained that Armenians had been persuaded by environmental groups to opt for small living trees in pots, or artificial trees imported from China, instead of the traditional cut Christmas tree

That was not the case everywhere, though. Despite the environmentalists’ best efforts, shops in some Christian neighbourhoods around the country still had rows of pine trees stacked up on the pavement outside. These trees are sourced from commercial plantations which grow them especially for Christmas.

Iran has some 100,000 Christians, mostly of the Armenians’ unique Apostolic Church. About ten per cent belong to the Armenian Catholic Church, which is affiliated with Rome.

In the Iranian capital, most Christians live in the eastern areas of Narmak and Majidiyyeh, as well as in centrally-located neighbourhoods like Karimkhan and Bahar.

Among the city’s main Armenian shopping areas are the Mirza-ye Shirazi and Villa (or Nejatollahi) streets. The latter is particularly well-frequented by tourists looking for traditional handicrafts. At one end of this old street stands the great Church of St Sarkis, while a short walk away is a confectioner’s shop specialising in sweets and cakes for the New Year period.

Outside the shop, a large Christmas tree stand in the middle of Karimkhan street, which the city authorities decorate with coloured lights to remind Muslims and non-Muslims alike of the western New Year (the Iranian year runs from March to March).

For Iranian Muslims, Christmas [surely Christmas, not new year?] commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, who is revered in Islam and is mentioned frequently in the Koran, which also devotes a “sura” or verse to the Virgin Mary. Some years ago, a park near the Christian neighbourhood in Karimkhan Street was renamed Hazrat Maryam, after Mary.

Villa Street has many shops selling Christmas cards and decorations such as crystal balls and silver stars. There are also artificial trees which come in all sizes and ready decorated if the customer wants it.

A campaign by environmentalists to save the world’s s trees led many Armenians to start buying artificial trees, which also have the advantage of being reusable.

Last year, Tehran municipality also offered small living pine trees to the Christian community, free of charge.

At the far end of Villa Street, close to the Church of St Sarkis, there are still real trees on sale, leaning against the wall of Hazrat Maryam Park. They are priced according to their size, colour and density and the shop’s location.

This year, the Golestan flower shop in north Tehran had trees ranging from deep green all the way through to silver. Yet one customer went for a small living tree which could later be planted in the ground. He said an artificial tree was out of the question as it would not be a “good omen”

Maryam Jalali is a journalist in Tehran