‘Tis the Season to be jolly…’ Almost anyone living in the West, or having any exposure to it, can finish off that jingle. The world has shrunk and what once was a purely religious observation has now become a commercial phenomenon. Christmas and the accompanying holidays are a global event and as Muslims, we have to consider our interaction (and that of our children) with both its spiritual and material aspects.
In terms of religious significance, a majority of Christians observe Christmas i.e. the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December. Some denominations in the East have a slightly different date, placing Christmas on the 6th of January and thus giving rise to the idea of the ‘12 days of Christmas’. Although it is now known that these dates are not accurate, they have become ingrained in cultures worldwide.
Through the decades, as the holiday has gained popularity, it has been redefined and marketed as a more generic period of giving thanks and meeting family. The fact that it is the end of the Gregorian calendar year and that both school and work holidays fall during this time allows for a convenience in bringing together people from different schedules. Certain associated rituals like decorating a tree, the myth of Santa Claus and observing a feast that were adopted from existing pagan practices have allowed even those who are not strictly religious to indulge in the celebrations.
The challenge for Muslims is how much to interact with this season and what to tell our children about it. For parents, the most dreaded questions are the ones prefaced with ‘Why can’t we…?’ and handling these queries requires a multi-pronged approach. The basic and most important issue is of course the observance of the holiday itself.
To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate
Should we as Muslims observe Christmas or not? Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus (a). Commemorating births (and deaths) is not a new thing for us so joy upon his birth as a revered figure in Islam is as normal for us as it is on that of the Prophet (s) or the Ahlul Bayt(a). In this light, Christmas is a valid celebration that we can share in. True, the exact date of the birth of this blessed Messenger is not known, but since our fellow Christians have chosen the 25th of December, we can accept their observance of it.
Accepting the event as valid however, is different from immersing oneself in the culture of it in the same manner adopted by non-Muslims. We cannot feel obliged to observe Christmas just as we do not expect non-Muslims to observe Ashura or any of the Eids. These historic events are intertwined with our faith and their physical manifestation stems from personal spiritual belief and love.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Islam is that everything we do is prefaced with a purpose in mind – the core aim always being to gain a nearness to God. It is therefore almost impossible to justify putting up a Christmas tree for example or having Santa Claus ‘bring gifts’. If we feel we must share gifts during this time, it makes more sense to have a distinct reason for it: perhaps as a reward for an achievement over the year or better still, a donation to charity as a sign of gratitude to God for making it through another year safe and sound.
The Importance of Identity
Just as Christians fully identify with their holidays, it is vital that our children do the same with the religious holidays that we have. Explaining from a young age the lunar calendar and how it shifts through the year helps children understand where to place their expectations.
Making a big deal about the holidays we do observe – Eid and Milad un Nabi, for example – gives a child a sense of balance. They get to experience decorating their home, exchanging gifts and eating a meal together as well. Sometimes making a scrap book or having photos and mementos from this time helps to serve as a reminder for them if they begin to feel left out.
The world we live in requires our children to be much more savvy and aware of different cultures and beliefs. It is never too early to explain even in a basic way that we don’t celebrate certain holidays because of what we believe in. Our children probably have similar conversations with their friends anyway.
However, we must always – always! – maintain the greatest level of respect in our explanations, in order to teach our children to do the same. We might not believe in Jesus (a) in the same way that Christians do, but we do respect and love him in our own right. We can only extend the hand of brotherhood and communication if we teach this to the next generation.
The Wider Community
While we each try and find a middle ground upon which to stand during these holidays, a good rule of thumb is to try to be sincere and use the opportunity to explore common ground. If you want to send over a box of chocolates to your neighbours for example, try to send a personalised note mentioning our respect for Jesus (a).
When it comes to school events, most have a ‘Christmas Concert’ just before they close for the holidays. Depending on the content, if you are not comfortable with your child participating because of the music, the nativity play or any other reason, all it takes is a simple, polite note explaining your stand and requesting that your child does not participate. Such actions are important not just for the school to understand your individual beliefs, but also for your child to know that it is possible and perfectly acceptable to take a stand when culture and faith clash.
A lot of Muslims feel torn when they are wished ‘A Merry Christmas’. Should they reply and inadvertently join in a celebration they are not completely associated with? Or should they not reply and come across as impolite or alienating? Etiquette is such an integral part of being a Muslim that this conflict actually takes up a lot more mind-space than it seems it should!
To make things easier, three options are offered. One: Don’t initiate the greeting, but if wishes are conveyed, simply respond. It has become a common phrase and doesn’t purely associate with your faith and belief anymore. Two: Respond with a ‘Have a good one’ or ‘You too’; something non-committal. Three: Adopt a more generic ‘Happy Holidays!’ greeting/reply.
All in all, Christmas will be observed and enjoyed best by those who have a religious connection to it. For the rest of us, it is a case of being observers who are happy because our brethren are happy. We are all on our individual journeys towards God and as long as we strive to remain sincere and don’t get carried away in rituals that have no basis in our faith, we will, God-Willing, find Him.