Memory can be a potent emotion, especially during the holidays. Growing up, my extended family would gather in Dayton, Ohio for Christmas. My dad, who grew up in Tehran, Iran and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, would dress up as Santa and we’d all share Persian food -- kebabs and tahdig (crispy rice) – plus American turkey with my father’s Iranian parents, my aunt and uncle, and my brother and cousins. The house smelled of strong spices – saffron, sumac, and turmeric – which only made us hungrier.
I remember especially Christmas 1984, when my parents threw an extravagant house party, with a feast that included several types of rice dishes, from lima bean rice (baghali polo) to cherry rice (albaloo polo). My dad even ordered a whole salmon from long-gone local French restaurant L’Auberge. He invited Persian and Lebanese friends, and my mom hired a pianist to play holiday songs on her grand piano. I remember most of it through old Polaroids, including one of me dancing with my dad. It was a festive time, but it was short-lived: two years later my parents divorced, and that ended our Persian holiday celebrations.
It might come as a surprise that Iranian-Americans celebrate Christmas, but even my paternal grandmother, who was a devout Muslim, participated in the holiday after she immigrated here. Yet there’s another, lesser-known holiday celebrated in Iran that I’ve been learning about: Shab-e Yalda, observed on the winter solstice.
I don’t know why my family never celebrated this holiday. It is rather obscure, even for Persians, and Norwuz (or Norooz), the Persian New Year in March, is much more prominent. Chef and The New Persian Kitchen cookbook author Louisa Shafia also missed out on the holiday growing up. She surmises Shab-e Yalda gets overlooked in the U.S. because of more mainstream holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah. “Unless you’re Iranian, you have other plans around that time of year. On the 21st most people are scurrying around, getting ready for the holiday,” she says.