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Choosing to Celebrate, or Not – Christmas in a Muslim household

Last holiday season my three-year-old son, Zain, innocently asked me, “Mommy, what is Santa bringing me for Christmas?” I should have known that question was coming. After all, I sent him to preschool at a Baptist church in Atlanta. He attended chapel every Monday and said blessing before lunch every day. Once when he was two, he waddled over to me and told me in his toddler voice, “Jesus is Love.”

The question about Christmas and Santa was particularly unsettling because we are Muslim. I didn’t know how to explain to Zain that we don’t celebrate Christmas. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and scar him forever or make him feel like a leper. Clearly he heard about Christmas at his school. I didn’t want him to feel awkward or different from his classmates – even though he is.

Thoughts were racing through my head. Should I tell him Santa is coming and bringing him presents if he is a good boy? After all, isn’t Christmas a consumer holiday devoid of any religious associations at this point? What was the harm in putting up a tree and buying the kid a few presents just to make him happy? Although Muslims exchange gifts during their two major holidays, both known as Eid, neither holiday is nearly as commercial as Christmas is in the West.

I thought back to my childhood when my parents, Palestinian immigrants, used to celebrate Christmas just like a typical American family. We decorated a Christmas tree, hung up stockings, and put up lights around the house. My parents even convinced us that Santa was real. On Christmas Day, we gathered around the fireplace and opened presents and wondered how Santa fit down the chimney. I always knew we were a Muslim family, but I never considered Christmas a Christian holiday that was contradictory to our Muslim faith.

Then came one holiday season when I was twelve. My older sister (who was sixteen at the time and remains the religious crusader in our family to this day) dissuaded my parents from celebrating Christmas any longer.

With tears in her eyes and fervor in her heart, she passionately made the case to my parents that Muslims celebrating Christmas was wrong. It didn’t matter that Muslims are taught to love and respect Jesus as a very important prophet of God and celebrating his birth is not technically against any Islamic principles.

I mentioned these childhood memories of Christmas once to my former law school classmate, Eric, who grew up Jewish in Connecticut. After I described how we used to celebrate Christmas like any other Christian family up until I was twelve, he looked at me in shock and said, “What? You used to celebrate Christmas? I am a bad Jew and even we never celebrated Christmas!” I felt a bit ashamed that a Jew who enjoyed pepperoni pizza was chiding me for putting up a Christmas tree as a kid.

I decided to broach the subject of Christmas gently with my husband, Mohammad, who – unlike me – didn’t grow up in the United States as a child, but came here from Iran as a teenager.

“Honey, what do you think about putting up a Christmas tree for Zain? He doesn’t really understand, and I think he would like the lights and presents.”

Mohammad looked at me with an eyebrow raised and said, “You want to celebrate Christmas? Don’t be a sell-out, Hadeel.”

A sell-out? This coming from a man who is hardly religious? I was filled with indignation at his hypocrisy. What was the big deal about a tree, a few lights, and some presents?

Then I thought back to a conversation I once had with my friend Sarah, who is Jewish. I was telling her how Zain’s preschool is very Christian and how Zain talks about Jesus quite frequently and goes to chapel once a week. Her response was, “That’s creepy. Those people are brainwashing Zain. How can you keep him in such a school?” Sarah – like Eric and Mohammad – isn’t particularly observant, yet she insisted on sending her eldest son, Max, to a Jewish preschool when he turned two.

The conversations I had with Eric, Mohammad, and Sarah made me wonder: Am I indeed a sell-out? Do I have a set of principles or am I filled with contradictions? Am I setting my child up for a life of not knowing who he really is or where he comes from? After all, I’ve already alienated the more conservative members of my community by wearing sleeveless shirts and short skirts.

I quickly realized I wasn’t being fair to myself. I couldn’t compare my experiences to those of Eric, Mohammad, or Sarah. Sarah grew up in Boston in a vibrant Jewish community – as did Eric in Connecticut. Not to mention, they grew up celebrating Hanukkah during the holiday season. Mohammad, on the other hand, grew up in Iran surrounded by other Persian Muslims. I grew up as a religious and ethnic minority in suburban Atlanta with nobody remotely like me.

It dawned on me that I’m not filled with contradictions. I know who I am. I am a Muslim who grew up in a largely Christian country. I am a hybrid of two worlds, and my potpourri of religious experiences reflects that.

So last year, I finally decided to take Zain to the toy store and buy him some gifts during the holiday season. We didn’t put up a tree or talk about Christmas extensively, but Zain knew that he was getting presents because that’s what happens during Christmas.

Upon learning that I had bought Zain gifts, my four-year-old niece cried, “It’s not fair! Zain gets to celebrate Christmas and not me!” My other nieces, who attended an Islamic school at the time, jumped at the opportunity to explain sanctimoniously, “We don’t celebrate Christmas because we are Muslims!”

Zain, who adores his older cousins and mimics their every move, suddenly had no interest in Christmas or the gifts he had received for that occasion. In fact, on the day after Christmas break, when Zain returned to preschool and his teacher asked him how his Christmas holiday went, Zain looked at her as if she had insulted him and replied in a tone imitating that of his cousins, “We don’t celebrate Christmas, Miss Dyeann!”

This year I won’t agonize over Christmas again. If Zain brings up the subject, I’ll take him to the store to buy him gifts like I did last year. But I have a feeling his cousins will do the dirty work so that I don’t have to think about it for now. As Zain gets older, I hope he will begin to realize that he is different than his classmates in a more organic way – a way which doesn’t strip him of his identity as a Muslim, but also doesn’t cause him to scoff at any holiday that celebrates giving and receiving.

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