The way I spend Christmas has gradually changed over the years
since I accepted Islam nearly 20 years ago.
At first I dealt with it by denying that it existed (no mean feat these days). My family seemed to feel that I was denying their existence as well because I no longer gave presents, sent cards or visited at this time, although I remained in touch the rest of the year They were hurt and upset by what they considered to be my thoughtless, selfish and bigoted views.
This year, in the week before Christmas I visited my parents with the children and we helped them decorate the Christmas tree. There was great excitement as the baubles and trinkets were unwrapped and put on the tree. The children then went for a walk over the Common with their grandfather to cut some holly to decorate the house with, while I helped Mum ice the Christmas cake.
When we arrived at my parent's house on Christmas day, they announced that Father Christmas had delivered stockings for the children. The kids are aware that there is no such person but the they are more than happy to go along with their grandparent's game. there were exclamations of joy and thanks as the contents of stockings were unpacked.
Every year my mother buys a halal Turkey, so we can have a traditional meal with all the trimmings. She also makes a Christmas pudding minus the alcohol. The tradition of pouring brandy over the pudding and setting it alight is no longer possible, of course. My parents usually have a glass of wine with their lunch, At one time I would have refused to sit at the table with them, but I try and turn a blind eye to it now, although this is not always easy when my eldest daughter asks Granddad with a knowing look whether wine is the same as alcohol and then my seven year-old son announces, "That's haram, you know." We explain that Granddad is not a Muslim and so he is allowed to drink it.
After tea the things were cleared away. We sat around the table and played traditional games. Then Christmas is over for another year.
These days I think I respect my parents as a Muslim should. I also hope that I am more tolerant of family and culture, perhaps because I have come to realise that it is part of my culture as well Christmas for my family is not a religious festival at all. Allah says that He has created mankind as nations and tribes so that we may know each other.
As Muslims who say "In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful" many times a day, we should show kindness and generosity, particularly to those who are closest to us whether they are Muslims or not. A wise man once said that we should make religion our home and not a prison and I feel at home with Islam now. It is no longer the prison I had made for myself.
Having embraced Islam 15 years ago, Christmas is just like any
other day for me.
I was brought up celebrating the traditional Christmas customs; at school we would perform a Nativity play, make decorations, design cards, sing carols and send presents to our friends. The build-up to Christmas was much as it is today, only perhaps less commercialised. It was, as a child, an exciting time.
But with maturity came the realisation that much of the celebration was a gloss. Christmas soon lost its glitter. I recall being a first-year nursing student working on a medical ward full of elderly and terminally ill women. There was no excitement or joy for these ladies. Many were lucky if their families came to visit for an hour or two. My eyes were opened.. Life was certainly a more serious matter than the glamour and fun in which Christmas is wrapped up.
As the years have gone by, these layers of packaging have been stripped away and Christmas is seen for what it should be and not what it has become. I have four children whom I don't exclude from school at Christmas but augment their lessons by explaining the real significance of the birth of Jesus. My family visits us at Christmas but they also visit throughout the rest of the year.
I invited my mother and also my paternal uncle over on Christmas Day together with my two sisters in law whose husbands were away. We had an enjoyable day but
with a half-Arab, half-English meal instead of traditional Christmas lunch. We congratulated them out of respect and my mum brought the children presents as she does every year.
We don't see the need to go over the top at this time of year -just to continue to be sociable and remember our friends and relatives, have respect for their festivals but also to remember their real meaning and value.
It had been four years since I last spent Christmas with my
mother's family in France and I wondered how I would be received by my relatives as a
hijabi arriving in Paris. I had become somewhat accustomed to the curiosity over this
piece of cloth covering my hair, but coming from my own
family it would no doubt be a new experience.
Aunty Anne phoned to ask me what I would like for a Christmas present. I thought it best to keep things simple and asked for a red pencil case.
'What sort of red?' she asked. 'Rouge Bordeaux' I replied, referring of course to a red French wine. Perhaps getting on her level would be the only way, for really I would have much rather preferred a collection of hadith.
For a first appearance in front of my Christian relatives since donning the hijab, things did not go too badly. My little cousins were great about it - they asked lots of questions and showed a genuine interest, which is more than can be said about the adult members of my family.
I was given the job of putting up decorations while my brother decorated the Christmas tree. I wandered if we would find a halal turkey but to my surprise Paris was full of halal butchers.
A bottle of champagne was popped and a toast made to the health and prosperity of the family. I too said a du'a under my breath but I called upon Allah, and not the bottle of bubbly. Then the smelly cheeses came around and everyone was full and merry.
It's a family tradition that the children are taken out of the house to look for Santa. It goes without saying that they return disappointed. But then they see the presents under the tree and discover that Santa had already been and gone. I found it intriguing whilst driving around with them in search of Santa that my cousins sincerely believed in a character that didn't exist. It is the imaginary figure of Father Christmas and not the real one of Jesus (on him be peace) who has become the central character of Christmas for my relatives.
I could no longer detect any Christianity in the celebrations. In fact if any religion was the subject of conversation over Christmas dinner it was Islam! I felt there were a few opportunities to do some da'wa work, especially when my aunt told me that her problems had got so bad she was now on anti-depressants. Aunty Anne is the only one in the family with a religious tendency and so she often understands where I'm coming from.
On Christmas Eve we were invited to dinner by an elderly French couple who had lived in Algeria where the husband had served in the French Secret Service. It was a peculiar atmosphere. Here were a couple who had spent most of their lives in conflict with Muslims serving us at the dinner table. It took them a while to understand that mum had converted and her acceptance of their invitation was a sign of tolerance. But all the haram food and wine was irritating. You'd think that having lived in a Muslim country they might have known what to avoid.
But it got better. Our Christmas break ended with a meal in a halal Moroccan restaurant. On entering we were greeted with salams and on the way to the ladies I even spotted a brother making wudu. This short glimpse was very important to me. France plays a significant role in my life and my identity and it was reassuring to see that Islam is very much alive here, no matter how low-key it might be. With this assurance I got back on the Eurostar thinking it had not been such a bad trip after all.
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