At 30, I’m celebrating my first Christmas.
I grew up Muslim, and so I never celebrated the holiday. While many Muslim-American families do get festive for the season, mine hard-passed on it. No need to celebrate Jesus’s birthday (although he’s a much-revered prophet in Islam). And Santa made no sense. Instead, I was raised to be respectful of those who celebrated, give gifts to my friends and sing along to “Jingle Bells” at school functions.
When my husband and I got married, we decided not to celebrate Christmas—though many Muslim adults do. Then our daughters, who we are in the process of adopting, came into our life this year. They're 4 and 8 and have grown up with Christmas. I'm putting aside my feelings and trying something new.
I've been full Grinch since becoming an adult. A Grinch and a Scrooge and a foot soldier in the War on Christmas. My anti-Christmas attitude was ultimately rooted in feeling both self-conscious and self-righteous about the holiday. I remember my middle-school friends coming back from winter break with new clothes, cool pleather shoes, sparkling butterfly clips and a range of boy band CDs (the '90s were a simpler time). It was impossible—even after spending the break happily with family—not to feel slighted, left out.
I've always been a person of faith and had long since been put off by a lack of any meaning behind the holiday.
Christmas was all about making lists of gifts, sneaking peeks at gifts, unwrapping and receiving gifts, returning gifts, comparing gifts and bringing the gifts to school. Sure, holiday movies on TV focused on family and giving—but that’s not how it played out around me. Anyway, those films featured a backdrop of exorbitant trees towering over boxes of gifts lest anyone forget the Christmas morning payoff.
Still: rejoice not, Evangelicals. I'm no Christian convert. My husband and I, our family, is just as embedded in our Muslim-American community as before.
In contrast, the most significant Muslim holiday, Eid al-Fitr, celebrates the end of Ramadan—a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, and donating to the poor. As a child growing up in relative privilege, Ramadan was a chance to reflect on our lives of excess. Christmas, as I saw it practiced around me, just didn’t measure up.
I started to get annoyed that I had to choose between school or celebrating Islamic holidays. Folks celebrating Christmas practically got a month off to do their thing. My friends also agreed the holiday wasn’t really about God or Jesus, but rather a pagan tradition that plays itself out in modern times through consumption and commercialism. (That didn't stop me from demanding that my high school geometry teacher turn off the Christmas music he played while we applied Pythagorus's theorem to complex shapes and angles. This did nothing for my popularity).
But kids have a way of making a parent do the unthinkable.
So today I have a trimmed tree in my sun room, a poorly wrought web of lies about the existence and current whereabouts of Santa, and a full understanding of the anxiety other families have about making the holiday perfect. Instead of getting together with my sisters, going to the Waffle House and catching the latest movies, we'll be franctically searching for the perfect gifts—something we used to laugh at our friends for doing.
And I'm all in. My girls deserve to continue their traditions.
They deserve to be showered with gifts, and spend time with our family and extended community of friends. I’m stretching myself a little thin to make it all happen—it's a lot easier observing like I did in that past than doing everything I can to capture the spirit of Christmas this year. I mean, right now, I'm fretting over whether Indian food is appropriate for our Christmas Eve Eve party. (Is it, though?)
I’m realizing, after years of bah-humbugging, that Christmas is ultimately what I make it.
Still: rejoice not, Evangelicals. I'm no Christian convert. My husband and I, our family, is just as embedded in our Muslim-American community as before. The issue that’s foremost in our minds right now is the ongoing crisis in Syria. In between Amazon gift binges, I’ve been watching the siege of Aleppo play out on social media and in the news. The images of children being pulled from rubble takes on a new significance for me as a mother—a phenomenon I never believed was real when my mom told me about it—because I see my children in each of their faces.
So while I need to Google the lyrics for "Rudolph" to make my girls happy, I can’t shake the need to do something more.
I'm in this entirely unexpected place of trying to put Christ back into Christmas. I am revisiting the story of the birth of Jesus for myself. While the Islamic and Christian versions differ, the struggle of a mother seeking refuge in a hard world resounds in both. This story, and the reminder to empathize, is much more a gift than the piles of toys and clothes under our tree. In addition to watching "Elf" with them, I’m searching for a nativity set and for age-appropriate resources to teach about the refugee crisis today.
I’m realizing, after years of bah-humbugging, that Christmas is ultimately what I make it. It can be a stressful, consumption-driven nightmare. Or it can be a reflection of the values we want to see in the world. I'm finding my way through both.
We should absolutely give gifts to those we love and know well. But we should also take time to find each other in the faces of strangers living through the unimaginable.