Once upon a time, there was a little Muslim immigrant girl who fell in love with Christmas. She loved the lights, the music, the movies, the treats, and most of all; she loved Santa Claus. Her parents couldn’t afford Cabbage Patch Kids or Barbie’s Dream House, but Santa Claus, he could make miracles happen.
If you haven’t guessed yet, that little immigrant girl was me. And no, I didn’t get the Cabbage Patch Kid or Barbie Dream House, because being an immigrant child is just full of reality checks. But that didn’t stop me from pushing my parents to purchase a $20 plastic tree, put up twinkling lights, bake cookies, and sing Christmas songs, every year. We were a household that loved the holiday cheer.
I did everything to celebrate Christmas except say Merry Christmas and proclaim Christ as the Lord. It was strictly “Happy Holidays.” My parent’s generation did not participate in religious traditions of non-Islamic religions. A significant belief in Islam is to reject idolatry and false Gods. Though in the Quran, Jesus is mentioned as the messenger of God several times, it emphasizes that he is the immaculate son of Mary, not God. My parents were able to draw a clear line for me between the cultural and religious sentiment of Christmas.
Both Agnostics and Orthodox Muslims have the same question for me: how can you identify as a Muslim and also celebrate Christmas?
The first Christmas celebration was 300 years after the death of Jesus Christ. Pope Julius I – the bishop of Rome declared the nativity celebration of Christ on December 25th because it coincided with the pagan tradition of Winter Solstice. Winter Solstice strikes something in the heart of man. At the Winter Solstice, the sun seems to stop declining in the sky for three days. Then it begins to rise on the 25th of December, the sun’s rebirth. Other notable birthdays during this time: Egyptian Sun God, Horus, Greek God, Apollo, Persian God, Mithras, and Roman God, Bacchus. Over 1700 years, the celebration of the nativity grew into celebrating with Christmas trees, elves, reindeer, Santa Claus, mistletoe, presents, and decorations.
There is a broad cultural significance to this time of year which goes beyond religion, time, and place.
Something I deeply respect about Islam is that Muhammad (PBUH) told Muslims, “Religion is very easy, whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So do not be extremists, but try (only) to approach perfection, and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded (just for that).” For religion to succeed in my life, I needed to find a balance. The Quran references “by custom” or “culture” many times. It speaks to the fact that culture is undeniable. Culture is what brings us together as a community.
As a Muslim, I honor Jesus Christ (or Isa (AS)) as the son of Mary and messenger of God. I believe his gospel is of compassion. Which Jesus stated in the commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Many centuries later, Muhammad (PBUH) said, “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” Brother being used in its widest sense.
Compassion and giving back to our community is a common thread between Islam and Christianity.
I was educated in the Catholic School System and very familiar with the gospel of Christ. That common thread of compassion made me feel connected to my Christian peers. I may not celebrate Christmas the same way as Christians, but I do value the message of giving to family, friends, and those most in need.
But, back to that Santa Claus. Does decorating a tree, exchanging presents, singing about reindeer, and putting up lights make me less Muslim? I don’t believe so. To remove culture from our lives in to live in black and white. Many things in my life are rooted in pagan / non-Islamic tradition: dancing at weddings, flowers in our home, jewelry, henna, attending religious ceremonies or weddings of friends, the list goes on and on. My American culture, a melting pot of cultures, has a home in my heart. It is never in competition with religion, because Islam, for me, creates the size and shape of my heart. No culture can or should dictate that.
To partake in the festivities and culture of your larger community, and invite them to participate in yours, is what will close the divide between Muslims and Non-Muslims.
Chief Representative of Muslim Affairs at Duke University, Imam Abdullah Antepli, who has worked tirelessly to “build bridges” and “celebrate differences” stated his position, “As long as people do not take Christmas as a religious ritual, as long as they are not subscribing to the Trinitarian Christian theology, what’s wrong with it?”
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Muslimas, Chrismakuh, or Festivus, Happy Holidays to you, may this season be filled with peace, joy, charity, and some retail therapy.
Peace & Salam