Muslim for the Holidays

It’s a great irony that the only time I ever got everything I wanted on my Christmas list, was when I was a Muslim.

It was literally a few months after my divorce. I moved back to my parents place, and the future seemed as grey and veiled as the skies outside. Having just gone through a year old conversion, marriage, breakdown and divorce, what I needed at that time was family.

My family is about as secular as most. Growing up, religion and God were on the periphery of my life. My parents never really taught me religion; they let me figure that out on my own. Whenever Christmas came around, it became a time for presents, food and twisted Christmas carols (with such holiday classics as “Teddy the Red-Nosed Senator”, “Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire”, and an entire rendition of “O Christmas Tree” made with the sound of a chainsaw). We never had a diorama of the nativity scene. Mom took me to Christmas Eve servicesmaybe once or twice. The point is: religion was never a part of our holidays.

And, of course, I was faced with the same problem every Muslim convert faces eventually:

What do I do about Christmas?

Outside-In

This is, perhaps, a critique on the idea of many holidays with religious origins that we claim are spiritual. After all, it’s hard to believe Easter is supposedly meant to be focused on Jesus when you have children sitting on the lap of a giant rabbit in a mall, like a stand-in for Santa. And call me Grinch but the idea that Christmas is still primarily a religious holiday is drowned out in materialism and flashy advertising (and the fact that many don’t believe Jesus was actually born on December 25). In our society, holidays boil down to four things:

  1. Presents
  2. Food
  3. Family
  4. Time off work

As I mentioned in my previous post,  living in the In-Between of my Muslim now and my non-Muslim then has allowed me to look at both of them objectively. Looking at things from the outside, looking in, I can see both the good and bad of the holiday season. Humans are celebratory creatures; we need to commemorate meaningful things in our personal and communal existence.

The problem is that Christmas as we know it today has become a patchwork of pagan rituals (tree decorating), foreign cultural figures (Santa/Saint Nicholas/Kris Kringle), and the blitz of shopping, all justified by the notion of the “holiday spirit”. While I have no doubt that there are many who still cling to the spiritual side of Christmas, as a society the idea of Christmas has become watered down.

The Christmas Dilemma

So I still haven’t answered the question yet: what do Muslim converts do about Christmas?

Well, outside of establishing Non-denominational Gift Giving Day, there are a few things converts can keep in mind. The first is that there are a spectrum of opinions when it comes to it. Some will say that you shouldn’t even acknowledge it, and to stay away from all things associated with it; and if your family celebrates it, don’t join them. I understand the reasoning behind the opinion, and I think it’s something every convert ought to bear in mind.

The reasoning is due to what the main purpose of Christmas is: Christians believe it is the day Jesus, whom they consider the son of God, was born. And for Muslims, that doesn’t fly. While we believe in Jesus, peace be upon him, and revere him as one of the greatest Prophets, we don’t view him or anyone as a partner, equal or child of God. Ergo, the religious basis for Christmas is very much against what we believe to be the truth.

And so let me put up my own disclaimer here: this isn’t a fatwa, and I know there’ll be some who probably condemn what I’ve said here. But after discussing the topic with sheikhs, doing my own research, and seven years of experiencing it as a Muslim, I believe I’ve reached my own conclusion.

Because Christmas is so heavily tied with family, some may take the absence of a convert as a condemnation of the whole family. The important part is to know where you stand: letting them know that you are with them only to maintain the ties of kinship, not to partake in any sort of religious celebration. The same goes with gifts. However, one of the sheikhs I spoke with said that it’d be better to try and give the gifts, or have the get-together, on a separate day. It’s also an opportunity to clear up some of the misconceptions you have with your family about Islam—particularly regarding Jesus. Brushing up on Surah 19, titled “Mary”, is also recommended as it deals with the story of Mary and Jesus, peace be upon them.

So in summary, this is what has worked for me: don’t celebrate, don’t take part in the religious aspects, but maintain the ties of kinship. I understand the varying opinions on the issue and the wisdom behind them, and respect them. But I’ve made it clear where I stand on the issue, and I believe it’s the job of every convert to also do their research and follow what they feel it most right.

Every religion has its Eid

Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that every religion had their festivals. For Muslims, the two main festivals are Eid Al-Fitr (Festival of Breaking the Fast) and Eid Al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice). Both of these festivals are innately tied to religious acts: Eid Al-Fitr occurs after the month of Ramadan, which involves both a spiritual and physical fast. Eid Al-Adha occurs to mark the end of Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca.

After experiencing both those holidays, I’ve noticed that they haven’t been touched by commercialization or consumerism. The spirit of gift-giving is certainly there, but there’s no Sheikh Al-Eid who flies around on a carpet distributing gifts to good little Muslims. That’s not to say they’re not without their own caveats (no matter where you go, just ask a Muslim about the moon issue, parking, and organization for Eid celebrations)—but we’re working on it.

Decorating the tree, putting gifts under it, stringing up lights, and singing Christmas carols (especially the twisted ones) were a part of my life for many years. And becoming a Muslim changed that, along with many other things in my life. I struggled to find the balance between the extremes—between full celebration and outright condemnation. Though it took me a while, I found it was well worth it.

And so in closing, I leave you with:

Happy holidays.

And a bunch of sources.

Muslim for the Holidays (lecture) 

Exchanging Gifts with Non-Muslims

Celebrating Christmas with Non-Muslim Family

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3 thoughts on “Muslim for the Holidays

  1. Shannon

    i have learned that we need to base our understanding in the ways that the companions understood. The first three generations were the best generations. So my question is, how did the companions of the prophet deal with the issue. Many of them were converts and had to give up things. What did the prophet tell them to do. We can go around in circles listening to modern day sheikh give various fatwas. But the ones who understood islam at its best was the first three generations. So my question to you is, since I have not done any research myself and maybe u have in this area, what were the practices of the companions in this regard? Of course with authentic sources

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