Sunday, December 24, 2006

Have a totally Zoroastrian celebration

Just recently I had completed facilitating a training program at a college. Aside from trainees, I had been joined through the session by a PhD candidate gathering data for a thesis focused on improving aspects of training and evaluating students.

All of that is irrelevant to my story, but it explains how we met.

What is relevant is that we spent a lot of time sharing ideas on a wide variety of subjects and one of them was Christmas. Why that should be of interest is that he had immigrated to this country from a place that was not dominated by Christian beliefs and traditions. He was Iranian by birth and had been brought up Muslim.

While Farsi was his mother-tongue, he spoke fluent English. We also discovered that we could also converse in Arabic, although admittedly mine suffered from considerable lack of practice.

I had already determined that he was very secular. His religion was not a part of his conversation and, when we were speaking Arabic, neither of us used colloquial metaphors which could be attributed specifically to religion.

When he asked me what I was doing for Christmas I was a little surprised. I explained that Christmas, with hundreds of different meanings, meant little more than an occasion for gathering with friends and family, eating food I would normally avoid and drinking stuff I might otherwise not consider. The decorations were nice, but this year, even they had less significance than in the past.

He nodded with understanding and then said, “It’s mostly for the kids.”

Again, I was surprised. I asked, “Do you observe Christmas?”

“Oh yes,” he replied. “The kids love it, and it is a rather pleasant event with all the activity surrounding it.”

“You don’t mind the religious aspect of it?” I asked.

“No. We don’t really do anything surrounding any religion this time of year,” he said.

And, as we departed for our homes, we wished each other a “Merry Christmas”; a good wish which both of us recognized as completely non-religious.

Curiosity, of course, got the better of me and I wondered if there was any Iranian or Persian influence in the Christian religion. I was not to be disappointed.

The “Three Wise Men” story suggests that Persia had a lot to do with Christian tradition surrounding Christmas. It’s also been molded over time to suit Christian belief.

It is very likely that the Magi who visited Bethlehem originated in Persia and were actually Zoroastrians. Interestingly, the Christian bible doesn’t mention how many of them actually visited, but given the day and age, it was probably a very large group and there was probably a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding their journey. The reference to “three” magi arises because there were supposedly three gifts presented: gold, frankincense and myrrh. That too, is disputed since nothing in the bible says that there weren’t more – just that those are the only ones mentioned.

The names associated with the magi, Gaspar, Melchoir and Balthasar are probably also fictitious since, in various parts of the world, different names appear.

The gospels in the new testament were written well after the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the veracity of the texts themselves. There is even considerable ambiguity between books and there is a question as to why the Christian church did not include testaments which were written much earlier. The Christian bible, after all, did not actually have any definition until around 400 C.E. and was not finalized until the Council of Trent, by which time a huge amount of myth had been included in the religion itself.

None of that is of much consequence, however. What is significant is that at least one author of the new testament books understood the importance of demonstrating that the new Messiah had received the blessing of one of the most influential groups of the time: the original monotheistic religion – the Zoroastrians.

Oh, and the Zoroastrians have something in their religion with which we all might be familiar. During the Zoroastrian festival of Yalda, (just happens to be right around Christmas), an evergreen tree known as a sarve, “a potent symbol of Yalda” is adorned with ribbons and decorations. Gifts of food are placed under it.

I will go no further.

Have a Merry Christmas, or which ever winter celebration makes you feel good.

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