By Mariam Shambayati

As the holiday season unfolds, it’s a time when cultures across the globe come alive with the spirit of celebration. Having had the privilege of experiencing the festivities in Iran, France, Canada, Spain, and the United States, I’ve come to appreciate the rich array of traditions that make this time of year truly special.

My journey began in Iran, where I was born and lived until 1980. The winter solstice marks a celebration very close to my heart, the symbolic Yalda Night. This pre-Islamic festivity dates as far back as 500 B.C. and usually falls on Dec. 20 or 21, depending on the actual time of the solstice. Persians gather to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, with vibrant reds and greens adorning their homes and tables. Pomegranates, watermelons, and dried fruit symbolize the hope for a fruitful year ahead. The night is filled with poetry, storytelling, and the sharing of traditional sweets, fostering a sense of warmth and unity — a celebration echoing the spirit of Christmas.

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Although not a winter holiday, I would be remiss not to mention Norouz, the Persian New Year. Iranians celebrate the New Year on March 21. Norouz heralds the arrival of spring and stands as a testament to rebirth, renewal, and the eternal dance of nature’s cycles. Celebrated for over 3,000 years, Norouz marks the vernal equinox, a time of equal day and night, embodying themes of hope, rejuvenation, and, again, the triumph of light over darkness. In our home we always set a Haft-Seen, a table adorned with seven symbolic items representing abundance, beauty, and blessings for the year ahead. This joyous occasion is steeped in cultural rituals, from the playful act of jumping over bonfires to the exchange of gifts and visits to loved ones, fostering a sense of unity, gratitude, and the eternal promise of new beginnings.

NEW YEAR FEAST: A snow-inspired Haft-Seen — a table adorned with seven symbolic items representing abundance, beauty, and blessings for the new year — from a couple of years ago in Truckee. Photos by Mariam Shambayati

My family’s emigration to France in the early ’80s marked the beginning of a cultural odyssey. As we settled into the rhythm of life in Paris, I discovered the Fête des Rois (Feast of Kings). Celebrated on Jan. 6, the Fête des Rois revolves around the delectable pastry known as the Galette des Rois, a golden, flaky puff pastry filled with almond cream or frangipane. More than the pastry itself, what captivated me at the tender age of 8 was the game that went along with it. When friends and family gather around to share the cake, the lucky person to discover the fève (bean) hidden within its layers is crowned king or queen for the day and given a golden paper crown to wear. In the succession of my childhood memories, the Galette des Rois stands as a cherished and uniquely French ritual.

Only three years later, on we went to Canada, where I spent my teenage years. At my multicultural school in Vancouver, holiday choir services became a melting pot of musical and cultural expressions. We sang not only the classic carols like The Twelve Days of Christmas, but also embraced the diversity of our student body by including songs like Oseh Shalom, a Hebrew prayer for peace. The choir services became a celebration of unity through music, showcasing the coexistence of different cultural and religious influences in the community. It was in Canada that I learned the profound lesson that different cultures and religions can indeed peacefully coexist.

University brought me back to Europe, first to France and then to Spain, where I met my husband along with his welcoming Andalusian family, whom I have come to cherish as my own. My mother-in-law, Marisa, introduced me to the tradition of setting up a belén, or nativity scene, for Christmas. I have wonderful memories of her and my two young sons taking delight in staging this scene, adorning the house until after Jan. 6, when the reyes magos, or the Three Wise Men (or Kings), brought gifts for the children.

HOP SCOTCH: Jumping over fire to ward off evil a week prior to the Persian New Year in March 2021.

The arrival of the Reyes Magos, also known as the feast of the Epiphany, is the culmination of Christmas for Spaniards, holding deep cultural and religious significance. This tradition, observed on Jan. 6, commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts for the infant Jesus. Huge parades take place in all Spanish towns during which the kings throw out gifts and candy from their richly ornate chariots. It is truly a sight to behold. Unfortunately, the custom is now being supplanted by the imported convention of gift-giving on Dec. 25.

Having made Barcelona our home for over 15 years, the quirky yet endearing Catalan custom of Caga Tío, or “pooping uncle,” quickly became a beloved ritual in our house. A wooden log, adorned with a painted face and a red hat, is “fed” treats by children in the days leading up to Christmas. On Christmas Day, families gather around and sing songs, encouraging the log to “poop” small gifts and sweets. It’s a delightful blend of humor and tradition that adds a distinct Catalan flavor to the holiday season. When I introduced Caga Tía (transforming it from uncle to aunt) to my Truckee book club friends, they embraced it eagerly, turning it into a cherished element of our December gatherings.

UNCLE CLAUSE: The Catalan Christmas tradition of Caga Tio, or “pooping uncle.”

Now living in California, these traditions still form an integral part of our family rituals. I make it a point to share them with our American friends, reciprocating the generosity with which they’ve invited us to partake in quintessentially American traditions like Halloween and Thanksgiving. 

New rituals have invariably made their way into our home as well. We never used to put up a Christmas tree until we started living in Truckee five years ago. The joyful tree gatherings our friends organize here with everything from hot chili to bonfires and snow play made it impossible not to get into the cheerful spirit and bring back a tree of our own to decorate and liven up the house. 

I have to admit that amid all these traditions, Persian ones hold a unique place in my heart. Yalda and Norouz are absolute cornerstones of the year in our household. Despite having lived most of my life outside of Iran, the culture I consider as truly mine is the Persian one, and these customs remain an anchor to my cultural identity. 

Moreover, since these festivities are rooted in ancient agricultural rituals, they resonate deeply within me as a non-religious way of honoring nature’s cycles. 

As I reflect on my journey through cultures, I am reminded that traditions are not confined by geography. They’re like threads weaving through the fabric of our lives, connecting us to our roots, shaping our identities, and fostering a sense of belonging, regardless of where we are in the world. The beauty lies in how these customs, rituals, and celebrations retain their essence while adapting and intertwining with new cultures and environments. They serve as bridges between generations, carrying stories, values, and the warmth of shared experiences across time and place. I’ve come to cherish the universality of traditions — they’re not just markers of heritage but also a tapestry that unites us all.

~ Mariam Shambayati was born in Tehran, Iran, in the ’70s. Her family emigrated to France and then to Canada in the early ’80s. She became a self-taught artist after obtaining her architecture degree from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris-La-Seine. She raised two boys and now lives in Truckee with her husband. Visit shambayati.work. 

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