I may have to admit defeat on this one. I wanted to get as much information as humanly possible, but sources are conflicting and leading in different directions, so I’m going to tell you what I have and then do some research via a Persian friend.
Let’s talk about Iranian Christmas, more commonly known as “Little Feast.”
Iran has been a Muslim country since the 7th century Arab invasion, but Christianity has been practiced since the 4th and 5th centuries. In fact, the Three Magi who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to baby Jesus are thought to have been Persian astrologers (back when Iran was still Persia).
While they are the minority, Christians are allowed to practice their religion in peace. The Christian population of Iran is made up mostly of Armenians, Assyrians, Catholics, Protestants, and evangelical Christians. Only the Christian areas of towns, like the Armenian quarter in Tehran, sell Christmas items, but those stores are easily identified. They decorate their front windows with nativity scenes to let Christian shoppers know they sell holiday items.
Little Feast is preceded by Little Fast (Easter is the Great Fast and Great Feast). Christians abstain from meat products, eggs, milk, and even cheese. The Little Fast is meant to purify the body and mind in preparation for the celebration to come. People are only allowed to break the fast once they’ve received communion on Christmas morning. Then they return home to the Little Feast.
The feast is not actually that little. It’s a huge spread of Iranian specialties, with a specific focus on meat and poultry dishes. The main dish is a chicken and barley stew called harissa, not to be confused with the Tunisian chili sauce that’s popular in North Africa. Harissa (which I saw spelled harasa, harisa, and harrissa) is made by cooking, deboning, and shredding chicken and boiling it with de-hulled barley. Many consider it to be the national dish. Huge quantities are made and it’s eaten throughout Christmas week.
While most people eat the harissa, others will have roast turkey dinners and wealthier people may eat duck, pomegranates, and dried fruit. Accompanying dishes include grapevine dolma (stuffed grapevine leaves), reeshaw aqle (tripe soup), and patcha (soup similar to reeshaw aqle but made with lamb or calf feet).
And here’s where I ran into some trouble. Much of what I read said that dessert is a sweet pastry called kada. Other sources said dessert might also be kadeh or kulaicheh. But when I looked all these up, in both books and on the Internet, there was a lot of information about items that had similar descriptions and similar names, so I’m not sure what’s what. I ran across items called kleicha and kulecheh and kanafeh. So I’m turning to my boyfriend’s sister-in-law, who is half Persian, to see if she can shed any light on the situation. I shall update accordingly.
UPDATE: She couldn’t.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
Bibliography (now in alphabetical order!):
-Arcos, Polly. “Persian | Iranian Christmas “Little Feast”! – Adventures in Dining – Las Vegas, NV (Las Vegas, NV) – Meetup.” Do something, Learn something, Share something, Change something – Meetup. Meetup, 10 Dec. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. <http://www.meetup.com/Adventures-Dining-Vegas/events/15654088/>.
-Bowler, G. Q.. “Iran.” The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. 114-115. Print.
-“Christmas in Iran.” TheHolidaySpot: Holidays and Festivals Celebrations, Greeting Cards, Activities, Crafts, Recipes Wallpapers, and more.. TheHolidaySpot.com, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. <http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/worldxmas/iran.htm>.
-Crump, William D.. “Middle East.” The Christmas Encyclopedia. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. 192. Print.
-Edelstein, Sari. “Foods with Cultural Significance.” Food, Cuisine, and Cultural Competency for Culinary, Hospitality, and Nutrition Professional. Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2011. 553. Print.
-Sadigh, Soudabeh. “Christians Celebrate Christmas in Iran.” who are Christans of Iraq?. Christians of Iraq, 6 Dec. 1926. Web. 13 Dec. 2011. <http://www.christiansofiraq.com/christmasinirandec266.html>.
-Wernecke, Herbert H.. “Persia (Iran): In the Land of the Magi.” Celebrating Christmas Around the World. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962. 67-68. Print.
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