I love this time of year. There is a crisp chill in the air (Los Angeles gets just cold enough so we can enjoy the cold, not cold enough that we grow to hate it). People are humming, stores are buzzing with excitement. Consumer thoughts are directed towards what others might like, instead of ones’ self. Kids are emerging from their self-imposed homework holes for winter break. Let’s face it… Christmas is in the air, and I’m excited!
That may sound strange to some, coming from a devout and practicing Dawoodi Bohra Muslim. And yet, it’s entirely true. When I was growing up in an Indian-Muslim immigrant family in the 1970s Midwest, diversity was not as celebrated or as recognized as it is today. My parents saw no harm in a certain degree of assimilation, and this included celebrating Christmas, albeit in a muted way. Lights were put on the house, a cheap plastic christmas tree in the living room, and token gifts were exchanged on December 25th.
Now, here I am as a parent of my own two girls, and struggling with similar issues with our kids. As Christmas is celebrated alongside Hannukkah and Kwanzaa, my children have no holiday to celebrate (aside: I am convinced that those holidays are celebrated out of proportion to their religious/cultural significance simply because of their proximity to Christmas). Eid is our closest equivalent, but being based on a lunar calendar, Eid has no seasonal affiliation and currently falls in the summer months.
So, our family has decided to do what my parents did, and we celebrate Christmas (for the record, we make it a point to celebrate Eid more heartily, however). While Muslims also believe in Jesus; to claim that that is the reason we celebrate Christmas would be disingenuous and misleading. Rather, we celebrate a cultural Christmas. White lights on the house to mimic icicles which may have formed if we lived elsewhere, but not the green and red of Christmas or the blue of Hannukah (actually more popular in our neighborhood). A gift exchange on December 25th, with gifts limited to one gift per adult to each child (no gifts for the adults, unfortunately). A special re-dedication to charitable work. A dedicated day on December 25th to spend time at home with family and no distractions. We used to do a cheap plastic tree as well, but we have weaned the kids off of that with time.
Some people may call this celebration misguided, and I can see how this would be their first reaction. However, it makes perfect sense to me. To begin with, the true religious significance of Christmas has long been called into question, as historians have revised their estimate for Jesus’ birthdate. The true origins of Christmas likely lie closer to ancient Roman pagan holidays than any actual event in Jesus’ life. Thus devoid of any Christian historical relevance, Christmas becomes an essentially cultural holiday anyway.
Secondly, the values extolled during Christmas are universal to most, if not all, belief systems including Islam. Being thankful for the season during the worst weather of the year reminds us to appreciate God’s gifts, even when they seem most rare. Charitable works are universally considered virtuous. And while it is sad that we rely on an excuse like Christmas to show those we value in our lives how much they mean to us, Christmas reminds us to do so regularly. The day itself is the one day in the calendar where most merchants close their doors, and detractors from uninterrupted family time are minimal.
It is for these reasons that I celebrate Christmas, and do so as a proud Muslim. Some have termed this de-christianizing of Christmas to be a “war on Christmas.” If that is indeed the case, then my wish this holiday season is that all wars follow its example… A war fought entirely through enthusiastic embrace.