When I became a Muslim 10 years ago there was no doubt in my mind that Christmas would still be a part of our lives. For me it was one of the most magical parts of childhood. Long before I was an adult worrying about budgets and gifts and Santa, and how should we, of two different cultures raise our children and a million other questions it simply was the most wonderful time of the year. Way before the culture wars, the religion wars, the shaming and “haram/halal” banter, it was the time I felt so incredibly happy.
I’m going to take you back in time so you can see where I’m speaking from today. When I was a little girl we had several Christmas parties with family, usually at least four. It began in mid-December and ran until the New Year. For each grandparent’s house there were certain things that I remember being special. This year, I’m remembering those times and am heartbroken that I’m missing them all.
Long before the parties my mom would start decorating. We would go and cut down a small pine tree for our porch and buy pine boughs that she put in front of the house with big red ribbons and lights. My mom didn’t do tacky Christmas decorations, she just did beautiful things. We never had a real pine tree in the house but there were plenty of decorations.
My mom’s parents had a camp in the woods and after Thanksgiving, we’d go with grandpa to cut down a real pine tree that we could have and decorate. On December 1st our chocolate advent calendars appeared and we gobbled our daily sweet hidden behind the paper window. Up went the Christmas countdown with the days of December and a little mouse on a string to slip into the daily pockets. School programs, church activities, and after-school activities – Christmas took over in December. When it came close we started our family traditions.
With my dad’s parents, we would have dinner with my aunts and cousins at my grandma and grandpa’s house which was an eternal Santa village. My grandma really loves Santa. Chances are she has more than one thousand figures, ornaments, and paintings. We’d have cheese ravioli and homemade red sauce, garlic bread (that seriously no one made better than grandma), and cookies for dessert.
When we were younger they chose our gifts but when we got older it was a special treat to go shopping with grandma to choose our own presents, that, of course, had to be wrapped and saved until the night of our dinner. We would always play in the back bedrooms, sneaking pennies to get gumballs from a machine grandma kept hidden while grandpa would grumble back at us (in the most lighthearted way of course) to see what we were doing.
The house was small but somehow we all crammed around the kitchen table with just inches between the chairs and the countertop. When the night ended we’d warm up the car, bring out our gifts and drive home half asleep.
On Christmas Eve we always went to my mom’s parents. When we were older we went to the midnight candlelight church service. I can still smell the pine boughs, see the entire church dark except for the shimmering lights we each held in our hands, and everyone singing. From there we’d go to my grandparents’ house. They had an insulated porch off the back and grandpa would have a big fire in the fireplace waiting for us.
My cousins and I tuned in the radio so that we could listen to the NORAD Santa tracker, following to see when he was close to us. We knew that Santa would be stopping at the house because our parents secretly arranged for him to come with a big red bag of gifts. Dinner was always hot turkey sandwiches, Italian sausage, and lots of side dishes. The olive tray was where we’d sneak as many as possible to make olive fingers. Of course, there were gifts here too, all in anticipation of the big event.
On Christmas Day we woke up early and eagerly awaited what was under the tree. I remember our stockings were stuffed full and there were gifts under the tree. I don’t remember the gifts so much but I do remember sitting with my mom, dad, and sister opening them. Soon everyone would come to our house for brunch. When it was all done it was like the end of riding a giant wave. But we knew next year would come soon enough.
When I married MarocBaba whether we would have Christmas or not was not a question. I couldn’t wait to share this time of year with him.We took rides to see the lights. We went shopping for gifts for my family and I even surprised him with a plane ticket home to Morocco on his first Christmas in America.
We had fun buying Santa gifts for M even though he was still too little to know what was going on. MarocBaba never pushed back, he never saw anything wrong with joining my family for this tradition. Sure, we didn’t go to church anymore but that didn’t mean we had to sit at home.
Many Muslims ask me why we celebrate Christmas. They berate our choice and insist it’s wrong. That’s fine. But, for me turning my back on Christmas is turning my back on my family, my culture and my identity. Something I refuse to do. When I became Muslim I didn’t become Moroccan, nor do I want to magically Arabize myself and shun my own culture. If anything I’ve become more confident in my identity and myself.
Asking me to forget this is like asking a Moroccan or an Egyptian when they move to the US to forget their holidays, their childhood memories, the things that made them who they are today because it’s somehow “wrong.” I didn’t grow up with Muslim holidays. While my nieces and nephews squeal with glee for Eid al Adha, I shrug my shoulders.
I don’t get it, I don’t understand why it’s a big deal but I respect that it is an important part of their identity and life experience. For those of us who embrace Islam, we come from a different background. We have a different identity and a different set of experiences. It’s difficult for someone who has always been Muslim to see and accept those differences.
My children are being raised to know they are the product of two unique and important cultures. They have an identity that transcends borders. We are raising them to know, understand, and celebrate who they are and where they come from. I hope when they’re older they have magical memories of Eids and Christmas’ – and that will be the best gift of all.