A Very Muslim Christmas Story

In the second grade, my classmates and I were tasked with sewing our own Christmas stockings.

I was a fairly oblivious kid, and somehow coasted through to the age of 7 without ever acknowledging the existence of Christmas. But we worked hard on those stockings, and I was excited when I came home, rushing through our front door, stocking in hand, demanding it be hung on our fireplace.

I remember my parents looking at each other anxiously, and then my mom taking the stocking gently from my hand and walking me over to the sofa. She explained to me that, as Muslims, we didn’t celebrate Christmas – that it was a Christian religious holiday, but that Muslims had Eid1 (two Eids at that2), and those were our religious holidays.

All of this I accepted without hesitation. I’d never connected the stocking to the holiday anyway, it was just a thing I was told you hung on a fireplace. And I knew Eid – I loved Eid, when we all got dressed in our fanciest shalwar kameez3 and went to the mosque early in the morning for Eid prayers. Afterwards, we spent all day with family and friends, eating delicious food, the kids all playing together somewhere far from the adults. But the best part of Eid was the tradition where the kids all got money from the adults. Even as a child, I was proud of my faith and my heritage (later in elementary school, I nearly punched a kid in the nose when he called me “Indian,” screaming at him that I was, in fact, Pakistani – and then was told by said kid that he’d never heard of Pakistan so it must be a made-up country. Ahhh the innocence of the early 90’s, before we’d droned the crap out of Pakistan).

While the religious aspect of Christmas never really interested me, I loved that time of year. People were kinder, gentler, and friendlier, there was a promise of snow and hot cocoa in the air. Our town would hang the same lights and decorations on the main roads every year, and the radio would play Christmas songs. In the townhouse complex where I grew up, our cozy little horseshoe of houses would put up decorations as well, and come December you could start smelling that deep, comforting woodsy smell of chimney smoke as fireplaces were lit around the block.

I exchanged presents with my best friends around the holidays – our group consisting of one Unitarian, one Jew, one Muslim, and one Agnostic. I loved candy canes and peppermint, and holiday book sales that meant I could stock up my already-impressive library. The season wrapped a comforting blanket around me and lit the beginning of winter with a warm glow: two weeks off from school to do nothing but play in the snow, read some books, and curl up with hot chocolate by the fireplace.

Then while living in Germany, I fell in love with Christmas markets – stalls upon stalls that cut through the early darkness of each day, selling knick knacks and delicious food, mulled wine (of which I always had the non-alcoholic version for children, known as Kinderpunsch), crepes, and gingerbread cookies. The market gave us something to do after class, gave us an excuse to be outside in the fresh but chill air, our cheeks red with cold and Glühwein4. The thing I learned in Germany that surprised me the most though was how beloved Christmas and the Christmas markets were to young people who were mostly secular – either agnostic or atheist. A friend from the former East Germany who was an atheist talked about getting Christmas presents for his family – when I asked him why he celebrated Christmas if he wasn’t religious, he laughed and told me that Christmas was more of a cultural thing, not a religious holiday.

As a non-Christmas celebrating adult, there were self-evident truths I knew that I largely kept to myself out of politeness: that Santa was not real and at this point, more of a capitalist construct; that Jesus was in fact probably born sometime in the spring, not the winter, and both Easter and Christmas were meant to coincide with pre-existing pagan holidays so as to attract converts; and that, hailing from modern-day Palestine, Jesus was probably a brown-skinned man.

Jesus is a prophet in Islam as well, known by the Arabicized version of his name, Eesa. The story is the same, and Mary (known as Maryam) is jus as revered (pregnant women – of which I am currently one – are told to listen to the chapter of the Quran known as Surah Maryam, to remember the story of the virgin birth as an aid to ease labor). The only difference with Muslims is that we don’t consider Jesus the son of God, but the story is mostly the same. Yet because I know all of these things about Christmas and its origins and its lies, while I love the season, I’d never celebrate the holiday – putting up a tree, stringing up Christmas lights, even hanging my stocking on the fireplace would’ve confused me as a child. As I embark now on having a child of my own, remembering the demarcations of our faith and heritage while also celebrating the diversity of faiths and backgrounds around us is the balance I want to strike.

But it seems many Americans don’t feel the same way. Christmas has become a weaponized tool of a strain of virulent nativism over the past few years. “Happy holidays” is no longer enough – people practically froth at the mouth to tell you that it’s “Merry Christmas,” and that somehow, those two words make you more “American,” like a test of your loyalty. But really, what this war implies is that if you aren’t a white Christian in this country, you don’t really belong.

A recent Pew Research poll showed that among younger Americans, while nine in ten celebrate Christmas, only four in ten mark it as a religious holiday. Yet Christmas is no longer a time of kinder, gentler warmth and good will to all man – the small but vocal minority who have decided that there is a war on Christmas have corrupted the season. I may not celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, but I’ve always respected my human cousins celebrating the season, and basked in the residual love to all man that came with it. This Muslim-American’s hope for this Christmas? That we let nativism die and bring back the peace and goodwill this season brought in my youth.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Eid-ul-Fitr: Muslim holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
2. Eid-um-Adha: Muslim holiday to commemorate Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Ismael.
3. traditional dress worn in Pakistan
4. mulled hot wine with fruits and spices, served in Germany during the Christmas season

About Zainab Chaudary

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