Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but avoiding the fanfare can be difficult.
“Do you want a reindeer, Santa or snowman?” the nurse asked my toddler after taking his blood pressure. He looked at me puzzled, not fully grasping what she meant.
“Um, snowman. He’ll take a snowman,” I intervened to help him out. The doctor’s office was decked out with wreaths and red ribbons. My son was lured by the decorations.
“It’s pretty, Mommy,” he told me.
“Yes it’s really nice,” I acknowledged.
As a treat for how cooperative he was with the pediatrician, we made a quick stop at the library only to be greeted by a gigantic Christmas tree with lots of presents neatly packed underneath.
Mesmerized by the lights, my son fixated on what was new to him. The librarian bid us a hearty “Merry Christmas!” before leaving. In the process of trying to keep my son at bay, I merely smiled and made an exit with him.
Being a pandemic kiddo, he hasn’t gone out much thanks to COVID-19. It’s only this year that we’ve been exploring more and, in the process, a newfound issue is coming up: explaining the holidays, mainly Christmas, to my son.
While folks are more generous and there is merriment in the air, the choice of words is critical. You see, my family and I are Muslims. Christmas is not a holiday we celebrate. While it is nice to see the décor and lights, in some ways public spaces ought to be sensitive to different cultures and religions, especially if we don’t observe a holiday. Not doing so can feel coercive to many. There are only so many things we can opt out of without having a feeling of exclusion in the process.
“I honestly think the most harm comes from how it’s presented as this innocuous, almost secular tradition when its roots are so decidedly pagan,” says Dr. Nuha Mulk, mother of a toddler girl. “I can easily see future generations of Muslims celebrating Christmas because it’s fun or seems harmless.
“But it also can alienate our children from our own traditions,” she adds. “How often do kids complain about how boring or underwhelming Eid celebrations are? There is no communal sense of joy on Eid unless you really make an effort to be involved in the mosque and community. It can fall on a random weekday. There is very rarely a celebratory spirit. I think the message children take from that is that our holy days are unimportant.”
Mulk recalls her own experience trying to conceptualize Santa at age 5. “I know Santa doesn’t exist but I want the gifts — and then I got over it because we would buy stuff on sale anyway,” she says.
Tarmim Khan, a coach and therapist and mother of a toddler, says watching present-day Muslims appropriate Christmas into Islamic culture draws the question as to whether or not these individuals have truly developed their sense of self as opposed to following the bandwagon.
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“This is frustrating because ideologies are being mixed, which is confusing to teach to the next generation who are being taught one thing at home and then seeing the exact opposite [in] some social settings,” she says. “Furthermore, the choice whether to celebrate or not to celebrate Christmas as Muslims causes an unspoken divide, which can be alienating, [with some] facing judgment for upholding religious values as opposed to ‘fitting Christmas into Islam’ because it confuses and blurs the lines between religion and culture.”
Children thrive on consistency, she adds, which means that “learning one thing from religion and family life that doesn’t translate into social settings … causes a split in identity and confusion regarding the sense of self.”
This is why Khush Rehman, mother of three children, strategizes her visits to public places during this time. She recently went to a children’s museum only to hear “Jingle Bells” blasting; her daughter immediately committed the song to memory. By contrast, Rehman notes that there are no tunes that play during Eid or Ramadan, which is bothersome. Similarly, when going to the library, she divides the trip between her husband and herself to gather whatever books and DVDs they want to choose for their children so they don’t have to deal with the kids being exposed to the festive fanfare. She says her requests to libraries that they treat Eid and Ramadan in the same manner, with events and activities, have often been ignored.
For now, she’s focusing on “understanding that I can make it a change of environment or a change of conversation for my kids.”
“I was upset in the beginning because I wanted to protect my kids as much as possible,” Rehman says. “But then I explained to myself that I can’t always close my kids’ eyes everywhere they go, or take them away in every situation. They’ll have to figure out on their own what I’ve taught them to walk about from situations that don’t matter to them.”
Similarly, Mulk is worried about how this whole phenomenon can be more alienating as her daughter gets older.
“Right now, she is far too young to know what is happening, but it’s always hard to explain to a 5-year-old child why we don’t participate in this holiday,” she says. “I expect her to feel less-than and rejected for not participating in the gift giving and other activities, like I did, and it will be up to me and her dad to contextualize that and to ground her in our own traditions, like Eid, and make sure that she has a strong connection to the larger Muslim community.”
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