The Persian Conundrum

With a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah to everyone who takes part in the Winter Holidays by virtue of a belief system that celebrates the season with joyful traditions of faith, family and friends, I must also make note of the Persian conundrum, in which I and my like-minded friends find ourselves. Each year at this time of gifts, merriment and lights, we find ourselves in the increasingly familiar predicament of assuaging our children's angst at not having a religion that takes part in the Holidays. You see, we are Persian (aka Iranian), and by virtue of not being either Jewish or Christian we are classified as "Muslim" -- though the classification could not be less fitting.

This year, while my family meanders our local Christmas tree farm for the perfect Fir or Spruce to adopt and adorn at home with a growing collection of ornaments that represent our family memories and history, they asked me once again why it is that we don't celebrate Christmas. Even though our home is decorated with holiday spirit each year, and we exchange gifts on Christmas morning following a family dinner that some member of our family will invariably host the night before, we do not mark the holiday with any religious undertone.

Similarly, on the first night of Hanukkah my children expect that I will conjure memories of childhood as a new immigrant, when my dearest friends would allow me to celebrate the Festival of Lights with their families. From that experience I have retained songs that move me to tears, to this day. I sing the songs for my children as though the tradition is my own, but alas, it is not. Even though my children know the story of the oil that burned for seven days and can sing the songs, they know they are not part of the religion that celebrates it. They are not Jewish. They are Muslim.

We are part of a growing community of Muslims from Iran that have embraced life outside of modern-day Iran in adopted countries where we lead unmistakably secular lives. Yet, we are labeled as Muslim, though we know little about the religion and celebrate no part of it. The most prominent celebration we mark as a community is Nowruz which marks the Persian new year and predates the introduction of Islam to the Persians. It is, not unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, a holiday that celebrates family, friends, forgiveness and the renewal of life. We similarly celebrate most other holidays that honor friendship, family, love and community in our adopted land. There is, however, no tradition in our lives that celebrates Islam. Yet we are labeled Muslim, simply by virtue of the fact that we are Persian and do not belong to one of the few minority religions that comprise the Iranian population.

Perhaps it is time to have a new minority classification: "the a-religious Persian," who takes pride in being Iranian and embraces all the achievements and accomplishments of our people in the vast Persian diaspora, which spans the globe in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979. We embrace the triumphs of Persian history including being one of the world's oldest continuous major civilizations, dating back to 4000 B.C., with historical settlements and urban centers that were some of the earliest civilizations on earth. We rejoice in the contributions of our ancestors to civilization and humanity, including algebra, human rights, the advent of paper, mail, wine, ice cream, tulips and the acoustic guitar, among others. But we do not embrace Islam as the cornerstone of our lives. Religious tradition does not permeate the fabric of our family, or guide our conduct. Instead, we choose to make our own traditions by embracing love and fairness, humanity and the ideals of doing onto others as you would have done to you.

There are many of us in the States and beyond. Our communities are well integrated into the fabric of our adopted homelands, and are made up of largely educated, accomplished, professionals engaged in the arts, sciences, medicine, academia, law, philanthropy, advocacy, policy, politics, journalism, literature, media and more. We are Muslim by classification, but not by tradition. Each winter holiday, we must defend our irregular practice to ourselves -- then gather the strength to elucidate it to our children and enlighten our friends who have the good-fortune of belonging to a faith in which they believe, with customs they can readily embrace and pass down to generations that come after them. In the end, we take incremental part in the mixture of rituals that comprise the Winter Holidays, and teach our children to respect all religions.

Happy Holidays to all faiths, and non-faiths.