It’s that time of year again! The time of year where everything becomes festively decorated, people go gift-buying for their loved ones, and people talk about how they are preparing for the holidays. As a Muslim, I do not celebrate Christmas nor any holiday that comes this time of year. Surrounded by those who do, sometimes people will ask “You don’t celebrate Christmas, right?” (something I truly appreciate). Then, there’s the instances I run into where someone will wish me a Merry Christmas and I am not sure how to respond. Sometimes I won’t say anything, other times I’ll say thank you. And sometimes, depending on who it is, I’ll add “and I don’t celebrate Christmas”.
I understand that sometimes the Christmas greeting is a knee jerk reaction, like when I say “you too” in response to friends telling me to “drive safely” after I’ve dropped them off. And sometimes, I have realized, people just feel like sharing their holiday cheer with everyone and wishing EVERYONE a merry Christmas, whether they celebrate it or not.
“Well, what’s wrong with being wished some happiness?”
Some people get offended at someone “rejecting” this greeting of cheer. Isn’t it better that they send a greeting of good cheer than withhold it? Sure it is. AND when that greeting is attached to a religious event that I don’t partake in, I wonder whatever happened to being sensitive to other people’s beliefs?
Now before you label me and/or my fellow Muslims a Grinch or a Scrooge, let’s rewind and try to understand why I even bring this up. The basic tenet of Islam is to believe in one God, with no partners, no sons, daughters, parents, cousins…nothing! Just ONE GOD. To associate any partners with God is the biggest sin of all (shirk), for which there is guaranteed “no forgiveness” (unless the person repents).
Christmas, which has a lot of Pagan practices and rituals that I neither understand fully nor want to get into, is a celebration of the birth of God’s son/human incarnation of God. Thus, celebrating it would be going against the PRIMARY belief that every Muslim must hold in order to maintain the status of “Muslim”.
“But don’t Muslims believe in Jesus? Can’t you just accept it as a day to celebrate him?”
Again, this goes back to the history of Christmas, the practices and ideologies behind it and the basic belief of Islam. I do not celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who is even more revered in Islam than the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him). If I did want to celebrate either of their birthdays, I would do so by doing something they often did, like fast or help the poor or feed the hungry.
“Christmas is just an American (and Western) holiday. You don’t have to be Christian to celebrate it”
Yes, Christmas has veered off into a secular holiday; many of the people I know who celebrate it do not ascribe to the Christian religion. While this may irk some Christians (especially those who want to keep the “Christ in Christmas”), this is how it is. And indeed, most Christmas movies reiterate the existence of the fictitious character known as Santa Claus (and how no one seems to believe in him anymore) instead of celebrating and reminding people of the miracle birth of Jesus.
For Muslims, the rule of thumb when living in any society is that we may follow its customs and cultures AS LONG AS they do not go against or contradict any Islamic practice or belief. For those of us living in America, that takes out Halloween, Easter, SAINT Valentine’s Day (we don’t believe in Saints, either) and of course, Christmas.
“So, even if someone doesn’t celebrate it, what’s wrong with just WISHING them a Merry Christmas?”
Imagine if there was an American holiday known as “Pork eating day” that was celebrated with as big of a hullabaloo as Christmas. Would people wish people of the Hindu, Jewish and/or Muslim faith – or even vegans, vegetarians and others who do not eat pork – a ” happy Pork Eating Day”? And eating pork, while a sin for Muslims, is nowhere near the magnitude of shirk. I know it’s an odd example, but it’s a point I’m trying to make that, while I appreciate and accept the good cheer that comes behind the greeting (really, I do), I don’t accept the actual greeting itself.
Christmas is a BIG deal here in the US and growing up as a Muslim American, I have experienced being one of the “odd ones out” of people who do not participate in the festivities. But, because we have a long way to go in being PC and having tolerance and acceptance of other people’s cultures and beliefs, beyond being told to have a Merry Christmas, in public school, I learned (and sang) ALL the Christmas songs in music class, watched Christmas movies on the short school days just before vacation, made Christmas hats and stockings in sewing class and was given Christmas cards and gifts by teachers. I even remember making a mini-Christmas tree out of Readers’ Digest magazines once (it was actually pretty cool). So, even in public school (a place deemed secular and religion-free), I was surrounded by Christmas.
But what is it about Christmas? Last year, I asked my Facebook audience why most people do not wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah. My intention was to get people thinking about the reason why most people spread Christmas cheer, but not really Hanukkah cheer, or Kwanzaa cheer. Most likely, I thought, it’s because most people don’t celebrate the latter two holidays and venture to guess that the majority of their fellow Americans don’t either. So, then why not apply this concept to Christmas – only wishing it to those who do celebrate it?
I know some people may not know that Muslims do not celebrate Christmas (hence my trying to politely inform them), but those who DO know…why the resistance? I’ve found that some of those who did know, upon my reinforcing my personal beliefs, were extremely offended, as if I rejected their greeting of peace and love. For me, it’s less about rejection and more about acknowledging that not all Americans have the same traditions as each other. I believe the more we acknowledge and understand differences between the different people living around us, the better we can appreciate them and get along with each other. After all, don’t racism and prejudice stem from intolerance to people’s differences and the belief that all of “them” should be like “us”?
Muslim like me?
The two Muslim holidays, “Eid Al-Fitr” and “Eid Al-Adha” come and go and I almost never get wished by random strangers a “Happy Eid!”, nor do I wish a happy Eid to random strangers (but I will wish it to random Muslims). There are the co-workers or friends who know when Ramadan rolls around and wish me a Blessed Ramadan (which I absolutely love and appreciate), but many don’t know about the two Eids or their significance. It doesn’t bother me that non-Muslims don’t do anything for Eid because I wouldn’t want them to be celebrated as “just another American holiday”. The meaning behind it would get lost and the true reason for celebrating them would disappear. They’re special to me as a Muslim because there are rituals and beliefs that surround them, that we partake of together and teach our children to love and understand. I can’t (and won’t) do that with Christmas. I’ve never celebrated either Eid outside of the U.S. (or maybe one once when I was a child), so I don’t know how Muslims interact with non-Muslims during this time. Does everyone get greeted with “Eid Mubarak?” Do they have “Secret Eidee” at work places that all have to participate in, regardless of whether they celebrate it or not? I do not know. But, wherever we live, I feel like when we need to be aware of other people’s beliefs and not assume that everyone is like us (or should be).
For many Muslims who have converted into Islam, and whose family celebrates Christmas, this time of year is even more challenging. While they have accepted the beliefs and practices of Islam, which include not celebrating Christmas, their families of origin have not. My friend Elisabeth explained to me how it’s an especially trying and tense time as she faces the dilemma of delaying her trip to see her family, who have all gathered for the holidays, until after December 25th, or going earlier and being around everyone celebrating a holiday they she can’t and doesn’t. There’s a struggle of whether or how to gather with family without seeming like they’re celebrating, of being in the midst of holiday practices (beyond giving gifts or singing carols) that go against Islam, such as drinking alcohol, mixing with the opposite gender, etc. So, she and her family must choose whether they will avoid these situations by not spending this day with her family of origin and seemingly ostracizing themselves from their own blood. Or they will gather with their family and try their best to avoid participating as much as possible. May Allah (God) make it easy for them. Ame(e)n.
Best Christmas EVER
In 2001, my family and I went for Ummrah (a mini-pilgrimage) during winter break. I remember being in Mecca and seeing only the lights of the stores and the mosques outside. On December 25th, nothing happened. It was a day like any other. There were no songs about Rudolph or how Santa was coming to town or how anyone was coming home for Christmas (and only in my dreams). I reveled in this…to experience Christmas exactly how it is for me every year – a day like any other.