A Muslim's Experience with Christmas
By Huma Qureshi, gaurdian.co.uk
I absolutely love Christmas.
Baking mince pies, choosing presents and then wrapping them all up and writing Christmas cards... I'm possibly not nearly cynical enough, but I love all the festive stuff that goes with this time of year. I love how everyone gets a day off. I love how everyone travels back to their parents' house on Christmas Eve, like some sort of ritualistic voyage. I love the telly listings and the food and the noise of everyone being together. Love it. It's up there with Eid. This year, I've outdone myself â I organised my Christmas presents last month.
Some of my favourite childhood memories are of Christmas day - the family round the table, my dad carving a huge halal turkey which we'd have ordered weeks in advance, heaps of brussels sprouts, sticky carrots and roast potatoes and a bottle or two of Shloer (our version of a, er, posh non-alcoholic drink) to pass around. We'd play Scrabble and Monopoly and watch the Queen's speech, Top of the Pops and the EastEnders Christmas special. Sometimes my mum would do the Asian thing and we'd end up with 40-odd family friends joining us, which would mean less leftovers, but that was OK too. Last year, my Christmas-loving brother was in charge of the menu â he went so far as tracking down an organic, halal goose.
Christmas in my Muslim home was obviously not a religious thing: it was (and is) about being on holiday and getting together with friends and family, something festive and bright to cheer up the winter drear. I imagine this is how it is for most people.
But at school, where we kneeled every morning after assembly for the Lord's Prayer, it was different. I was in every school nativity play, often a wise man with a keffiyeh-styled tea towel on my head, and I sung hymns and carols in every school Christmas church service, ending with big happy shouts of "Merry Christmas everyone!" and plates of mince pies passed round as we'd bundle out the church door.
The traditions are passing on: soon, my four-year-old nephew will be making his debut in his school Christmas play. He plays the part of a hen. We are not sure how that falls into the Christmas story, but we are rolling with it, in the spirit of the season.
Growing up learning about one faith at school and practising another at home, where we had Arabic lessons, read namaaz (prayers), fasted and celebrated two Eids, wasn't as confusing as it sounds. I can't really explain it, but somehow, we just got it and we still do.
When it came to Christmas, as Muslim kids we always knew that Jesus was our prophet too, which justified in some way our enthusiasm for the season.
We may not have had a Christmas tree and our parents may not have given us Christmas presents (another way they differentiate Christmas from Eid: my family only exchanges presents after Ramadan, whereas on Eid-al-Adha we give to charity rather than to each other), which was sometimes tricky to explain at school, but that didn't mean we couldn't still take part in it. After all, at the crux of it, pushing the consumerism to one side, Christmas is all about goodwill, forgiveness, thanks, charity and gratitude - and that's what Eid is all about too.
Lady Warsi recently said Muslims "should" celebrate Christmas. But what she ignores is so many of us, along with people from all faiths and no faith - already do. Whether it's cooking a Christmas dinner, decorating a Christmas tree or joining in with carol singing, so many of us "minorities" Warsi refers to are keeping traditions, albeit little, secular, seasonal ones, alive in our own homes, in our own ways. It's something I've seen my parents' generation, who arrived here in the 60s and 70s, do for decades. Those of us who "do" Christmas do it because we want to.
This year, I'm celebrating Christmas with my in-laws. They are Christian (my husband converted to Islam), and last year was the first time I spent Christmas with them. I won't pretend I wasn't at first anxious as to how it would be, but it turned out their Christmas is no different to the Muslim-Qureshi version of it I've always known, except they had a tree and gave each other presents. But other than that it was the same, lots of family, lots of food, lots of chatter, natter and fun. I'm guessing it's sort of the same everywhere.
Though Warsi made her point clumsily and patronisingly, it surely can't be a bad thing to celebrate different traditions from cultures and religions that aren't necessarily your own (if that's what you want to do and don't want a government minister telling you what you "should" be doing, that is).
I recently invited a young couple, who weren't Muslim, over for dinner during Ramadan, as part of an initiative to bring people of different backgrounds together: it was brilliant. When I was at school, I went to pujas with Hindu friends, our Christian next-door neighbours send my family Eid cards and gifts, and vice versa on Christmas. My mum always prepares trays laden with Eid food for the neighbours â a friendly, simple gesture that says so much about people living side by side, believing different things but not letting that get in the way of normal life and friendship.
It's simple really, it just comes down to thoughtfulness, respect and having an open mind. Sharing religious or cultural celebrations opens traditions up, so that we can all get to see, and be a part of, the best, warmest and most generous, most welcoming parts of society. If it sounds like I've got that fuzzy feeling, it's because I have. What can I say, Christmas does that to me. And that's reason enough for me to celebrate.
Now, I realize that some people would prefer that people of different faiths would go around hating and disrespecting each other, just so they can win the argument, but it is simply bullshit. Yes, there are some who are fanatics, but like anything, nothing is perfect. To suggest all people of faith are, as some would put it, "Stupid, idiots, unscientific" is just simply wrong and only injects the hatred that they themselves pretend to protest, but overtly display an appetite for.
I understand this, and in no way hold myself above them, for I've done a lot of shitty things and probably will continue to do so, but to deny love and beauty when it is so obvious and try to fill it with hate is something I've learned to avoid. I hope you do too.