I loaf about the house in my oversized hoodie and sweatpants, my feet wrapped in Turkish Sabah slip-ons that my brother bought for me on his last trip to Istanbul. The house is quiet. I crack open a pomegranate for breakfast. The kids have probably come to associate December with this knobbly red fruit heaped in the center of our dining room table.
I’ve made a point of teaching them how to carve pomegranates, so as to expose their inner beauty the way they were meant to be. To remove the pomegranate’s nipple and areola; to identify the white seams of bitter tissue that separate the clusters of red arils in between; to make shallow incisions in the skin, running the knife along the seams; and to gently pry open the fruit displaying the ruby-studded pentagram.
“It looks like the Demogorgon from Stranger Things, Baba.” That’s what my son once told me, and now I can’t unsee it. It’s rather terrifying, to be honest.
I remember being his age around this time of year. While my friends in Bedford, Nova Scotia were decorating trees, displaying festive lights, and hanging unwearable socks around the house for Yule time, my family was preparing for Shab-e Yalda (Night of Birth). This occasion marks the winter solstice, the longest and darkest night of the year. Except that for our family and many others, Yalda was anything but dark. I would go so far as to say that it captures the true spirit of Christmas – perhaps owing to a shared history. Instead of evergreens and holly berries, however, we had watermelons and pomegranates. Instead of carols we read ancient poems from Hafez. The elders told stories. Our hearts were uplifted and the frost that once adorned our windows melted into tears of felicity and love.
Passersby would have only seen a driveway full of used Fords and a seemingly empty, unlit, house. Shame that those people don’t celebrate like we do, look how drab their home appears without the twinkle of Christmas lights.
If only they could see us gathered in the basement, a place where the bashful Iranian diaspora of the 80s and 90s could celebrate their beloved traditions in large groups – concealed from the public gaze.
And so it is, as I encourage my kids to bury their faces into the splayed mouth of the Demogorgon – a carnal kiss of crunching and slurping, sprays of crimson lifeblood splattering everything in close proximity – I remember where it all began and how the freshly squeezed juice of Yalda has been diluted in just two generations.
It was not like it is today. Maybe it’s guilt – fear of being that weak link that breaks the sacred chain connecting us to our ancestors – that tortures us into preserving traditions and culture with fierce intention. Routinizing and force-feeding our children everything we fear that might be lost, as if they’re meant to redeem us. As if acculturation isn’t a normal consequence of immigration. Still, we take that burden on ourselves. It’s not very healthy, I admit.
Our parents didn’t preserve these things with intention. They just enjoyed themselves and the culture they knew. As children, we were free to pick and choose what we wanted to participate in: the poetry and stories intoned by our elders in the basement, or pulling an all-nighter playing Nintendo and watching Disney movies upstairs with the other kids.
I didn’t learn how to properly open a pomegranate until I was an adult, with kids of my own. I don’t know a single word from any of those old proverbs and poems. I’m totally unfamiliar with the divinations from the Divān of Hafez. My fingers fumble about on the Santour and Zarb, but it will never live up to what my dad and uncles could do. My voice doesn’t warble the sweet melodies chanted with such facility by virtually every adult from my childhood.
These were just things that they did because that’s just how things were done. I don’t think anyone concerned themselves with losing anything, because immigration was new and loss had yet to be encountered. Culture is a matrix that gives birth to itself when it finds a receptive host. I was inoculated against the past with the prevalent strains of the present.
Yalda became Yule time. My kids celebrate Christmas with their Christian great-grandmother, and I think this is a beautiful thing. I gaze at the heap of pomegranates gracing our dining room table, paying homage to the past. I think about renewal and death, preservation and change, and realize that everything is exactly the way it should be.