When the saintly gift-bearer (whose existence my 10-year-old son is beginning to doubt) arrived in early December, as he does in Belgium, for what might be his final visit to our house, he must have been confused to find it all done up with a Christmas tree already. On deeper reflection, I am aware of the glaring contradiction between parents telling their kids never to accept anything from strangers and then pretending it’s okay for a mysterious old man to enter their homes in the dead of night to leave treats behind.
In our multicultural, irreligious household, where we encourage our son to celebrate his dual European-Arab heritage, Christmas is the favorite festival. With how secularized it has become in the West, it is more fun than the Islamic feasts we also mark.
When we lived in the Middle East, visits home for Christmas gave our son a warped view of Belgium, making it appear like a magical fairy-tale land full of glittering lights and toys. Even for us as adults now back in Europe, the festive street bustle helps warm up the dark, cold winter nights. And it is dispiriting when it disappears shortly after the new year, plunging the second half of winter into unfiltered darkness.
When I was a child, my Muslim family didn’t really celebrate Christmas, but it was everywhere right outside our doorstep. I recall the thrill of touring central London with my parents to admire the beautiful lights. Not wanting us to feel left out, my mother allowed us to keep some Christmas traditions. We sent and received Christmas cards. Mum bought presents for our teachers and took us to Christmas parties. We took part in the school Christmas play, and I sang in the school choir for a brief time before my voice broke. I still know by heart many Christmas carols and hymns.
Some years, Christmas even skipped merrily in from the cold outside and crossed the threshold into our home: We decorated the house, and Mum attempted to make what were for us exotic Christmas dishes, albeit halal versions with absolutely no booze.
These days, with commentators declaring that Islam and Christianity are locked in a clash of civilizations, these anecdotes may seem strange or exceptional. They aren’t.
Although Christmas is not an Islamic festival, my mum believed in civility and saw it as a common courtesy to share people’s moments of joy and grief. Open-minded Muslim that she was, my mother saw no contradiction between celebrating the birth of Christ with our Christian neighbors and her own deeply held faith. After all, Jesus is an important figure in Islam — he is the most holy man next to Muhammad.
Of course, not all Muslims are as accepting of others as my mother was. The reverence with which Jesus is viewed in Islam makes the declarations by some Salafi imams — especially in hard-line countries such as Saudi Arabia — that Christmas is “haram,” and that pious Muslims must cold-shoulder their Christian neighbors and colleagues, sound like petty, vindictive, intolerant sectarian humbug.
The main beef that Muslim critics have is with the Christian conviction that Jesus is the “son of God,” which they claim is tantamount to idol worship. But even if you disagree on the nature of Christ, there is no reason, beyond spite and insecurity, not to wish Christians a joyous Christmas.
And on closer inspection, the differences in the Islamic and Christian perceptions of Jesus can, to the eyes of the skeptic, appear to be just another chapter in the centuries-long, hairsplitting tradition of Christology. Not only was Jesus born a “boy most pure,” according to the Koran, he is also the only character in Islam’s sacred book who is described as the “Word” of God. The Koran even quotes God as claiming that “We blew into [Mary] of Our Spirit.” Here we have all three sides of the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit), as well as Mother Mary, but Muslims perceive them to intersect differently.
This central importance of Jesus in both the Christian and Islamic traditions helps explain why the annual media controversies over the “war on Christmas” leave many Western Muslims miffed.
How inclusive a festival is depends on how it is conducted, not what it is called. When we lived in Tunis, my son’s school held a Christmas party, even though the majority of the kids were Muslim, as was the man dressed as Father Christmas himself, and everybody seemed to enjoy it.
At the school before that, in Jerusalem, Santa’s arrival on camelback was greeted with thrill and enthusiasm by Christian, Muslim and Jewish children alike. In Jerusalem, we also enjoyed marking the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which often overlaps with Christmas. Christmas lasts a very long time in the Holy Land. There, you get a month of Christmases: Western (Dec. 25), Eastern and Orthodox (Jan. 7), and Jerusalem Armenians (Jan. 19). The holiday has retained much of its religious flavor for Middle Eastern Christians. For example, midnight Christmas mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is so popular, even among some Muslims, that tickets are acquired via a lottery.
Here in Belgium and in most of western Europe, Christmas has become a far more secular affair, effectively morphing into a winter festival for the majority non-churchgoing population, which is what it originally was before the arrival of Christianity. Despite my aversion to the runaway consumerism of the season, it is this merry, jolly, secularized festival that suits my unbelieving heart the most.