Lima Al-Azzeh

Merry Christmas or Happy Non-Denominational Holiday to You!

In Cultural Anomalies on December 25, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Nothing wrong with ostentatious holiday decorations

When my sister and I were little girls we always looked forward to the Eid holidays, which is basically Muslim Christmas without so much of the “Christ” part. Every year my mother would buy us pretty little outfits, all the way down to the frilly socks and patent leather shoes, that we would wear around the house all day as family and friends would visit us at various intervals throughout the morning, afternoon and evening. Each morning, my mother would set out some tea and all her handmade traditional date cakes and pistachio cakes (mamoul) to serve to her guests. The door to the house would remain ajar all day, so visitors would feel welcome to come in and visit with us anytime. It was a joyous experience, made all the more festive by its promotion of togetherness.

Christmas was sort of a novelty for us, though there were many Christians in our circle of friends who celebrated it in the traditional sense, it wasn’t the predominant holiday and so the closest we ever came to truly celebrating Christmas was going on a two hour drive to Dubai to see all the intricately decorated Christmas trees at the Four Seasons hotel. Then we’d drive home and get back to our dinner of jasmine rice and stew.

1996 was our first year as residents of Vancouver and when Christmas came around, we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves. We felt sort of guilty “celebrating”, because somehow we had this fear that introducing a two-foot, fake Christmas tree into our home was akin to turning our backs on Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him). Christmas came and went and we didn’t pay much mind to it. My mother, in an effort to make us feel like we weren’t completely foreign from our friends, bought us each some little presents to recreate the holiday feel without the religious sacrilege.

As years went on, we realized we’d probably never have an Eid the way we did when we were living in Abu-Dhabi. For one thing, we’re living in a predominantly Christian country now, so we’d be hard-pressed to find some of our traditions embraced on even a small scale. There would be no white tents set up in courtyards offering hookahs, Arabic music and cardamom tea. Our family and friends would no longer be coming around to pay us a visit; we couldn’t even justify taking a day off to stay in and celebrate, though I found out in later years that it’s perfectly within our rights to do so. We had to accept that moving here meant some massive readjustments to how we celebrated the holidays.

Every year, we’d give ourselves permission to push the boundaries of our guilt and do something just a little more “Christmasy”. We kept the gift-giving tradition in good faith, and each year would add another Christmas accoutrement: a Christmas tree (that escalated in size each year until we finally bought one big enough to hang normal-size ornaments on, and not just the tiny trinkets we bought in a bag at the Dollar Store), we bought a beautiful statue of a white Santa to go with our white and silver Christmas tree, we even looked forward to buying our annual poinsettia.

As far as actual togetherness went, we played a little fast and loose with those traditions. My mother was never too bothered if my sister or I accepted invitations to our friends’ houses for Christmas dinner, those friends whose families were open to hosting foreign “Christmas Orphans” to give their deprives senses a taste of real Christmas. That was until the year my aunt married a South African man and we finally had someone to shepherd us into full-on Christmas tradition, rife with eggnog, mulled wine, turkey and all the stuffing you can eat.

Pretty soon, we were celebrating Christmas as though we’d been doing it our entire lives. The tree would go up at the start of December, we’d trade gift wish lists early enough to make sure everyone knew what we wanted, my mother even learned to make the turkey and stuffing so we can host everyone at our house some years. We hadn’t paid much mind to the religious significance behind the holiday, nor had we any guilt about our complete assimilation. Inevitably we learned that in the absence of the true atmosphere of our own Eid, we simply had to be practical and get into the spirit of things when everyone else did.

I can say for certain that after several “traditional” Christmases, we started to get all caught up in the gift-giving portion of the holiday. Each year, the presents meant more, their value increased, and the stress behind purchasing the gifts grew ever higher.

We’d come a long way from our own Eid, which always had a strict emphasis on humility. Eid-Al-Fitr never called for any ostentatious decorations, and though family and friends would give us envelopes of money, we were never allowed to covet these gifts or gloat about them, in fact my father would almost always take the money away and stow it safely in a savings account for my sister and I. This isn’t to say that Christmas doesn’t have an emphasis on charity, or any reverence towards something more meaningful than food and presents, but somehow it seems much easier to get caught up in all the byproducts here.

This year, almost 16 years since our first Canadian Christmas, my family finally managed the perfect blend of our own humble holiday traditions and the festiveness offered by Christmas. It all started with our unanimous decision to forgo the gifts.

For various reasons, we all found ourselves in a less than optimal position to be buying gifts, which may sound lame to some, but for us was quite the blessing. For once, I didn’t spend the weeks leading up to the holiday worried about my budget, or whether I’d purchased the right gift, or wasted an inordinate amount of insufferable time in a lineup to pay for something I wasn’t even sure the receiver would appreciate. This year, I actually got to look forward to simply spending time with the family lazing around the house, sitting down to meals together and reminiscing about old times.

When it came time for the big dinner, we congregated under one roof, with friends, family and even our own collection of “Christmas Orphans” to celebrate the holidays our way. The table was finally graced with the presence of a beautifully roasted 25 pound turkey, accompanied by potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and of course a big heaping platter of jasmine rice.

Merry Christmas or Happy Non-Denominational Holiday to you and yours.

  1. Oh! I love it. Our Christmas is non-denominational as well, secular and Santa and I always really liked it. I got married to someone who’s family is quite religious (his dad’s a pastor), and the adjustment has been tricky – I keep feeling really guilty that I prefer Christmas Eve eating take-out Chinese food and drinking wine with my parents and their friends to sitting in church, which means much less to me. I like that your family has taken their own approach to the holidays. Also, forgoing gifts was a great idea. Merry Christmas, and thanks so much for sharing!

    • Thanks for sharing em! I used to love being a Christmas orphan, I got to sit in on so many families’ traditions, secular and religious. I went to Catholic church once and that was a bit of a trip – so much standing, sitting and kneeling! Quite the workout. Overall, I’m really glad my family carved its own little Christmas niche. It’s nice to have something to look forward to every year – I’m looking forward to seeing how the traditions change as our family grows 🙂 Happy Holidays! It’s never too late for take-out Chinese.

  2. Great perspective! Its interesting that you said that your mother “…bought us each some little presents to recreate the holiday feel without the religious sacrilege.” For most people I feel that the holiday is better described by the sacrilegious term X-Mas than Christmas.

    I am all for having white tents and offerings of hookah and tea for Eid! I think we need to work on blending that tradition. Who says Jesus didn’t like the hookah?

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