My favourite calendars were the ones without chocolate — traditional European-styled posters, with small, thin doors that revealed simple pictures. There was something magical about finding the door, and trying to guess if the surprise-of-the-day was a colourful candy cane, a wooden horse or a gingerbread cookie.
Every year I would stare at the picturesque winter scene for hours imagining myself playing with the glistening snow and the sleigh-riding children. I would wipe my hands across the Christmas star and carry the glitter on my hands all day long.
While I know many Lutherans and Christians recognise the Advent as having a religious significance — counting down to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the birth of their Lord — for us it became a way to simply count down the days to Christmas Eve. As a non-practicing, but fiercely loyal Lutheran, celebrating Advent and meeting for tea and lighting a candle every Sunday in December was my mother’s way of making Christmas special for me while hanging on to her German heritage and raising me in Canada.
It was such a lovely and warm childhood memory, and creative way to make the holiday “festive” that I made Eryn an “advent calendar” for Ramadan, counting down to ‘Eid.
It just made sense to retain a part of my culture in order to help make a Muslim celebration extra special — especially being a religious minority competing with the likes of Christmas.
After I converted to Islam, I quickly decided that because celebrating the cultural side of Christmas was a part of my life, family and history, I had no reason to not honour my parents, and partake in our family’s secular Christmas traditions.
There is scholarly disagreement over whether Muslims can celebrate more strictly secular traditions, such as Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving — some say no while others say there’s no prohibition to celebrate other holidays outside of the religious sphere.
With Christmas however, the lines become blurred, because while there is a definite secular side to the holiday, many traditions like Advent hold religious meaning.
Irrespective of scholarly opinions on this holiday, not celebrating with my parents would cause more harm than good.
My mom’s German Christmas is a very important part of her culture. Not celebrating it would be like abandoning and rejecting her. We may not share the same religious beliefs — but that doesn’t mean I have to reject her way of life or the halal aspects of my upbringing. She has a granddaughter now, and of course, wants to see her legacy live on in our little interfaith family. And I’m prepared to be flexible in this request.
Because disrespecting parents is a great sin in Islam, I use Christmas as a time to celebrate and honour my family. By doing so, I become a better Muslim and have the opportunity to share my faith with them as well.
And now that my daughter is old enough to start appreciating Christmas as a really fun and exciting time, we all get the pleasure of rediscovering which traditions we can suitably incorporate into our Muslim, Christian and secular family celebrations.
This year there was a little panic when Eryn came home from Montessori school, rubbing her pudgy tummy saying, “Ho Ho Ho” And some more panic when she became upset watching children cry on Santa’s lap in the mall.
While the intent behind Santa is lovely, the materialism behind Coke-a-cola’s rendition of the Weihnachtsmann is not something we want to instill in her.
So instead of trying to Islamify the Jolly Elf or forbidding Santa outright, we’re teaching her about a very pious Saint Nicolaus who lived a very long time ago. He’s known for his miracles, kindness and for his secret gift-giving of coins to the poor. And because he was such a nice man, a very rich mythology has grown up around his legacy.
She’s two. We’re not expecting her to grasp the lessons behind materialism and mythology, but we are laying down the groundwork for her to be accepting of other’s belief systems and religious history — and hopefully, planting the seed that celebrating our family Christmas isn’t at odds with her faith.
There are tonnes of ways Muslims can celebrate Christmas without getting bogged down in Grinchy “saying Merry Christmas is haraam” (but non-Muslims better say “Happy Ramadan”); refusing to give charity during the month of December, fearing it will be inadvertently given in the name of Christ; or that eating a Christmas cookie negates one’s shahadah.
Instead of complaining about how the media misrepresents Muslims, why not use this highly visual time to produce positive stories of human kindness? Participate in “Feed the Streets” programs, remind family and friends about the importance of Jesus in Islam and our own story of Christmas, join a Muslim-Jewish day of service and volunteer to help the less fortunate on Christmas Day, or make a special effort to donate to your local mosque’s food bank.
Why not the holiday to build bridges and create our own unique Muslim traditions — whether that tradition means attending an Islamic conference on Christmas Day or making a special effort to donate to the less fortunate in the coldest months of the year.
As for my family celebrating Christmas — we will definitely continue decorating my parent’s tree, attending Reviving the Islamic Spirit, donating to charity, remembering Mary’s miraculous birth story of her son Jesus, and sharing a delicious Christmas Eve dinner with all of our Muslim friends.
A version of this post originally appeared at the Christian Muslim Forum.