The winter holidays, both Christmas and Hanukkah date back to when Christians and Jews were ruled by the Romans, who traditionally celebrated Saturnalia on Solstice. Solstice is the longest night of the year and signifies the first day of winter. The lights and candles are meant to give hope, cheer and comfort from the freezing darkness.
Many Americans suffer from holiday depression and anxiety due to financial and social stress, bittersweet memories of childhood or lost loved ones, or because they feel lonely. On the other hand, the constant stream of festivities leads to greater emotional resilience in most people. Depression and suicide rates actually peak in early spring, long after the party is over and all the guests have gone home and the food pantry stocks have dwindled. Those who spent too much money on holiday gifts, fancy outfits and travel will still be paying off their credit cards months later.
Meanwhile, Muslims are often not quite sure how to get through the holidays. Should they attend the office Christmas party and participate in the Secret Santa? What will they do when their boss proposes a toast? How do we get the children to understand and not cry because we are not going to buy them any presents? Winter clothes, maybe. Toys, no. How do we explain to a kid why we do not have a Christmas tree? My own children got around my non-observance by making their own ornaments out of paper to decorate the ceiling lamps and composing their own Christmas songs based on information they picked up at school about what Christmas is about.
â€œWe will get a mix of a bunch of feelings on this day / No Rudolphs, no horse-drawn sleigh / All we get is a closed Safeway,â€ goes a parody called â€œRockin Around No Christmas Treeâ€ by some South Asian youth on youtube.
Then we have the issue of dealing with non-Muslim friends and family members inviting us over – having to decide if we are going to exchange gifts and socialize with mixed genders of people drinking wine, or risk offending them. Are they going to have to change the prayers for us, since we canâ€™t eat food that was blessed in the name of Jesus (pbuh)? Should we ask them to cook a halal meal? Will they have dogs? Are they going to be offended if we donâ€™t want their dog to lick our hands? Awkward!!!
Some Muslim families deal with these conflicts by taking a rabbinical approach and strictly avoiding all non-Muslim holiday activities while while more liberal Muslims will compromise and join in the seasonal celebration in order to be friendly with the neighbors. In the holy land of Palestine, I have heard, it is common for Muslims to visit their Christian neighbors, bring them some food and wish them a merry Christmas, and on Eid the Christian neighbors will stop by to wish their Muslim neighbors a Happy Eid.
Yet in the middle of it all is the Muslim convert who could be experiencing multiple stresses – secretly mourning the loss of a holiday that once held spiritual and emotional significance in their hearts, feeling uncomfortable with onesâ€™ own parents and siblings on such an important day, oneâ€™s own parents feeling rejected by our rejection of their religion – even if we attend their Christmas party. And then, feeling alienated from a Muslim spouse or in-laws, who do not understand that extra emotional support is needed, who do not understand the intensely spiritual nature of our memories of angels and candles and choirs, or why our eyes might well up with tears when â€œOh Little Town of Bethlehemâ€ comes on the radio.
Likewise, Muslims who donâ€™t commemorate the New Year because itâ€™s not the Islamic calendar will come into emotional conflict with Muslim convert spouses and friends, who have happy memories of staying up until midnight and donâ€™t want to be left alone on that once special night, knowing that their old friends and their family are all celebrating.
Regardless of how we choose to deal with seasonal holiday traditions, Christmas can serve as a valuable opportunity for us to remember the importance of the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) to our world. It is a good time to go over the Christ story in the Quran, and maybe even do some comparative scripture reading with the Bible and other literature.
Muslims celebrate many special days to commemorate prophets and spiritual leaders: Eid ul-Fitr to commemorate the Prophet Mohammedâ€™s (s) revelation of the Quran; Eid ul-Adha to remember Abraham, Ismail and Hajjar; The fasting on the 9th and 10th of Muharram to celebrate the victory of Moses and his people over the Egyptian Pharaoh; Ashura to remember the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala. But we donâ€™t have any special day to remember Jesus and tell the story of his life to our children.
We can use Christmas as a tool for telling our children about the life of this great prophet, whose birth signified a new era of mankind and a new way of understanding our relationship with God and with each other, from the idea of competing tribal warfare-based gods to the idea of a universal, compassionate, loving God.
We can also use this time to explain the situation in Palestine to our neighbors and co-workers. Many people do not realize that Jesus spoke Aramaic not Hebrew and that he was a Palestinian not a Jew. Many people do not realize that Bethlehem is in Palestine, and that it is surrounded by a terrible wall. Many people do not realize the suffering of Palestinian Christians, the oldest Christ-following community in the world.
Most of all let us not forget those who are homeless and hungry during this time. Not because it is Christmas but because it is cold, and their survival depends on generosity. Let us use these days off school and work wisely.