Thursday, December 23, 2010

Have a very Muslim Christmas

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.

Brilliant, multi-coloured lights flash from storefront windows; giant wreaths, shining silver faux icicles and cartoonish depictions of Santa hang low from mall ceilings; giant 15-foot Christmas trees piled high with elaborate, wrapped boxes line entrance corridors; ready-made, delectable Christmas cookies and chocolates intoxicate passers-by with their sweet, comforting smell, and the latest secular Christmas pop tunes pour out from Starbucks and other trendy hot-spots. People crowd the malls looking for the perfect gift or are drawn by the holiday deals. Babies are enthralled by the lights and kids run around with Santa hats. The Christmas spirit is running high, and is only briefly interrupted by the call to prayer. It's Christmas in Kuwait.

I have to admit, my first trip to Kuwait to meet the in-laws was a cultural shock on many levels. Forget about meeting an extended family so large that after years of marriage, close relatives I have never heard of are still coming out of the woodwork. Never mind the joys of eating halaal McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Subway and finding a mosque on every street corner. Let's ignore my blundering attempts to connect to my family by speaking a Yemeni dialect (poorly) and wowing them with my bhangra dance moves (much better). What shocked me the most was finding a Muslim country that celebrated Christmas -- at least, the secular, consumer culture aspect of the holiday season.

Especially since I believed Muslims don't, cannot, and will not celebrate Christmas.

Christmas was always a very special time for my family. There were only four of us -- the rest of the family lives on the Plains, and their yearly cards hung on the wall as decoration and as reminders that we were loved and held together as a family, if only in spirit. While our celebration was never religious in nature, with me being a decided atheist and my parents lapsed Lutheran/United, we nevertheless clung to my mother's German traditions: a real pine tree, a meatless dinner on Christmas Eve, presents at midnight, and Boney M.

The house was always decorated with lights, my father and I made gingerbread houses, my stockings were filled with the obligatory walnuts and giant orange, and our mantle (later the wall unit as the collection grew) was covered with my mom's eclectic Weihnachtsmann collection. Most look nothing like their white, North American counterpart: one is dressed in an azure suit covered in crescent moons and looks decidedly Turkish, another is thin, wears a green cloak and is only carrying a staff and a lantern. This is my mother's most favourite time of year and she put everything into creating a festive atmosphere. Celebrating Christmas is her way of holding onto her German culture.

I broke her heart when I stopped celebrating. She saw it as a complete rejection of her way of life.

There is a vast amount of literature, legal rulings and opinions from the pulpit aimed specifically at diaspora communities living in Christian majority countries, recommending that Muslims do not celebrate or return glad tidings during the holiday season. New converts are encouraged to completely shun positive aspects of their Western culture, including celebrations, based on an idea that mimicking celebrations that are "religious in nature" could lead to imitating the religious rites of others. Special acts of charity, in the name of giving during the holiday season, are even discouraged by some. The reasons we're given vary from the pagan origins of Christmas to decorating trees leading one down a path to worshiping the baby Jesus.

Islam has it's own traditions and celebrations, but nothing on the scale and glitter of Christmas. Celebrations in Islam focus on family, can include gift-giving, charity and are often tempered with religious remembrance. It sounds like Christmas, but in North America, it's not the same. There is no Ramadan Advent calender, or Islamic Nativity depicting a palm tree and the virgin Mary giving birth alone as a single mother (according to the Islamic tradition). Mosques do hold dinners and 'Eid parties, but unless supported by an inclusive and involved community, they just become opportunities to fund raise with a captive audience. Many traditional forms of celebrations and songs are heavily laden with Arab cultural overtones, which can cause a disconnect for non-Arab Muslims in the West looking for a similar December holiday feel to the 'Eid celebrations. And when we can't find it, we can become troubled by holiday envy.

But Muslims the world over mark Christmas. Some decorate their house, make a halaal turkey and exchange gifts, some feed the homeless, some give messages of peace, some unfortunately ban celebrations to protect against violent opposition from extremist elements, some apologize for commercializing the holiday, and some reflect on the virgin birth.  Instead of wrangling over the evils of celebration (but going out in full force on Boxing Day), we should use this time to volunteer at a soup kitchen or food bank, give in charity, buy toys for donation, donate blood, honour our families, and reflect on the religious and moral messages of the season.

It's funny that I had to travel to a Muslim country, that uses the holiday spirit to cater to the growing numbers of expatriates who miss their Western traditions, to realize that I didn't have to give up on mine. I'm not saying that Muslims should Islamify Christmas. I just think that the traditional argument against the holiday season encourages division and isolation -- when the holiday season should be a time for good will, charity, community building, traditions and coming together with family.

This will be the eighth year that my family hosts an annual Muslim Christmas party. There's a tree, 14 close friends (and growing), charitable gifts, toys for the kids, excellent food, a happy grandmother and very good company.  As long as one's intentions are good, whether you're enjoying family, escaping to the beach, battling consumerism, opting-out, volunteering, going to the movies, eating Chinese on Christmas Day or having deeply religious, reflective moments, there can be something for just about everyone during the holiday season.