As a child I loved Christmas. It was way better than Diwali and the other Hindu festivals. Firstly you knew when it was and had time to build the excitement. It was also the holiday period from school. In the weeks coming to Christmas, school was on a wind down, things were more relaxed, more fun. We had the nativity; the school choir would come to life and we spent lessons making snowflakes. Unlike Diwali, which was just one day, there was a run up to Christmas. You would buy your Christmas cards and take them into school for your friends. There was excitement in getting cards back. We used to have this string that went all across the corners of our living room where we would all hang any card that we received. My sister and I would compete on who would get the most cards and she would always win.
Shopping was also more exciting. Town centre was busy. You had Christmas lights, Christmas songs and decorations enticing you to come in and browse. I remember my father’s workplace arranging for children to go to the Christmas pantomime at the Belgrade theatre. I remember seeing Aladdin, Dick Whittington and Cinderella; picking up a goody bag on the way out. Visiting Santa’s grotto at the Co-op became a yearly family tradition, even though I’d asked for a bike and ended up with a toy gun.
Christmas would also enter our house and family atmosphere. My dad would climb into the attic and bring out the plastic Christmas tree, together with the box of tinsel and decorations. My sister and I would have great fun in spending the day decorating the tree and adding the flashing Christmas lights. We would go Christmas shopping, buy presents for our cousins and all types of nuts, nibbles, mince pies, chocolates and other food we were not allowed through the year.
The excitement would peak at Christmas Eve as soon you would get to open your presents. Then the morning would arrive, you would open your presents with varying degrees of excitement or disappointment. Mum would be preparing Christmas dinner whilst we just sat around waiting to eat. Christmas dinner was roast chicken or turkey with the trimmings. We would sit around the table with my mum’s best china, pulling crackers, reading the jokes and putting the paper hat on our heads. There would be wine and occasionally we would get to have a little tipple.
Christmas TV was amazing in the era when there were only 3 or 4 TV channels. We would buy the TV guide and spend an evening marking the programs and films we wanted to watch and would have to record. There were Christmas specials, blockbuster movies and we were allowed to stay up late seeing as we didn’t have school in the morning.
Christmas was great and understandably one of the highlights of growing up. However, this all changed once I took my shahadah and embraced Islam.
Islam stated that Jesus is a Prophet of Allah (swt) as opposed to the son of Allah. In fact many verses of Quran came to address this argument when Islam interacted with the Christians. We have the beautiful scene when the Muslims migrated to Abyssinia and the companion Jaafar (ra) discussed the verses from surah Maryam outlining the birth of Jesus to the Abyssinian King.
From then on, Christmas lost its buzz and excitement. My viewpoint on life changed and therefore so had my actions. I couldn’t spend time learning how to recite surah Ikhlas and then contradict that with getting excited over Christmas.
Then there was all the commercialism of Christmas. Everyone is after your pound, playing with your emotions, playing with your children’s emotions with the next best toy your child just has to have. During the run up to Christmas you are encouraged to spend money overeating and then after Christmas you are encouraged to spend money trying to lose weight. Christmas is also a celebration of capitalism, profit predictions and the retail index. This is the opposite of Islam that encourages a balanced and not a skewed society as we see epitomised with the Christmas hype.
Over the years, since embracing Islam, I have seen Muslims have a strange relationship with Christmas.
My wife tells me about her experience as a child. Even though she was born in a Muslim house, she would also get caught up in the Christmas spirit. At school she would compete to place the angel on top of the tree, get excited with Christmas cards and decorations. She would sing carols and embrace the festivities of the season. Her parents wouldn’t decorate the house or have the turkey roasting in the oven, but they would share in the Christmas atmosphere with their neighbours by exchanging gifts and cards, all in the hope of being viewed as neighbourly and hospitable.
Today we find some parents also embracing Christmas festivities with their children. Parents will happily share pictures of the proud moment when their son depicted Joseph, or their daughter depicted Mary in the school nativity play. They will also encourage their children to attend the school Christmas party, by buying them a new outfit for the occasion. Often this is viewed as ‘a bit of fun’, as part of growing up and being respectful whilst residing in a diverse society. Parents view it as harmless and that if they took part in all the Christmas festivities when they were young and they turned out ok, likewise if their children now participate it will not harm them either.
Perhaps some parents feel they missed out on the fun of Christmas whilst growing up because of over-bearing parents. As a result it is not uncommon to find Muslims at the forefront of Christmas celebrations today, not only attending but proactively organising events and festivities for others to attend. So as parents’ make up for their own lost childhood they also ensure that their children are not missing out like they did when they were younger.
Some parents do have reservations about Christmas and even understand it’s contradictions with Islam but they are too overwhelmed by the atmosphere that is created and find it difficult to abstain. In their own workplace they may not feel confident discussing the reasons for not celebrating Christmas. Hence they make some random excuse for not attending the Christmas party. Others may even attend for not wanting to be viewed as extreme. As Parents, they will have the same worries for their children and not want them to be unhappy, to feel left out and be isolated. They don’t want their child to be sitting in the library reading a book whilst the rest of the class is visiting Santa and having fun. Others may just want to avoid confrontation with their child’s teachers and hence turn a blind eye to the Christmas activities taking part in the school.
All these views present a problem for the Muslims community. Allah (swt) wants us to be happy but happiness, in this life and the next, can never be attained by diverting away from His (swt) reminder. Our criteria for determining our participation in any activity should not be personal pleasure, benefit or fear of what people will say if we don’t do as they do. Rather obedience to Allah (swt) and his commands should be at the forefront at all times. This is the same mentality that we should seek to build in our children.
Preparing your child for Christmas
Christmas shouldn’t be avoided. It is near impossible even if you tried, unless you lock yourself away as a hermit from September onwards. Naturally, our children will know about Christmas and be affected by it in some way or another. They will see a 20ft tree, brightly lit up, sparkling with glitter and they will get excited. They will see all the toys, snowmen, the displays in the shops and become curious. We should not reprimand or punish our children for liking the lights, the glitzy decorations and presents. Their likes and dislikes will be shaped by the thoughts that they carry and if we haven’t discussed with our children then these responses should not come as a surprise to us.
As parents we should link the reality of Christmas to the correct concept. The first time your child sees a Christmas tree or Santa Claus they will ask about it. Saying ‘it is nothing’ or ‘its haram don’t look at it’ does not address the child’s curiosity or educate them in any way. Discussion is important in shaping thinking. We should engage in conversation such as “Some people believe that Allah had a son and they celebrate this at Christmas. What do you think? Can Allah have a son?” This can then be linked to the existence of Allah (swt) and his divine attributes. This is also a perfect time to revisit surah Ikhlas. For many children, surah Ikhlas is the first surah they learn and Christmas is a time to bring this surah to life with age focussed tafsir discussing how Allah is one with no partners or sons.
The nativity is central to Christmas and many children at school will learn about Mary, Joseph, the stable, the inn, gold, frankincense and myrrh. I once chaired a talk on the birth of Jesus. After the talk someone came up to me and asked what happened to the part about the stable and no room at the inn. The true miraculous birth of Jesus is something we should discuss with our children. If we don’t discuss this, they will most likely take the nativity version. The birth story of Jesus is also a good time to discuss the idea of Prophets, the need for Messengers and guidance from Allah. These are core discussions and Christmas provides an opportunity to reinforce them.
As Muslims we should value our time and spend it productively. If finances permit, Umrah is a great way to spend the holidays. There are also many Islamic events and tarbiyyah clubs over the holiday period. The short winter days could be spent fasting and having collective iftaars to build that Ramadan feeling into December. In our busy lives, the holiday period is a great opportunity to connect as a family in the worship of Allah (swt). Minimising Christmas TV is essential. Those endless programs depicting Christmas and the fun associated with it shape our disposition and build a fondness. I remember watching ‘The snowman’ as a child and even wanting my children to watch it because I watched it as a child. Many of us can reel of the lyrics of those Christmas carols and songs, such as ‘silent night’, ‘driving home for Christmas’ or ‘all I want for Christmas is you’. Unfortunately we may be more familiar with these songs than the verses of Quran.
Finally we need to exert our efforts in creating a nice atmosphere and positive associations with Islamic occasions, festivals and practices. Muslims from abroad will compare Eid in the UK to the Muslim world. They will tell you that it is not the same here. Eid will not compete with Christmas in the UK. Everything in the society gears around Christmas in the months leading up to 25th December, but that should not stop us making effort for Eid. Spoil your children for a day, buy toys and sweets, and make them feel that this day is special and different to other days. My wife tells me how Eid used to be boring as a child and how she would rather go to school than stay at home. As parents we try and make our children enjoy Eid, from performing Eid salah in the park, to visiting the stalls and the Eid funfair. The children get to choose where we eat, invariably involving a buffet with chocolate fountain. These are some small efforts we can make. As a community we should look to arrange communal Eid gatherings and parties for children with simple Islamic games and activities for all to partake in.
Reflecting back, my childhood had an impact on me as an adult and the emotions I felt about Christmas, to some extent, still affect me now. Yes, I did not embrace Christianity or become convinced of the trinity, but my tastes were shaped by that upbringing. This is the impact that a society has upon an individual as we live in a highly ideological society.
As a parent, I need to help my children navigate through the complexities of growing up in this environment. I need to help shape their tastes in line with Islam, whilst understanding that as children they need to grow and have fun. This presents a challenge for us as a family as we decide what we should or shouldn’t partake in. In the meantime, I will try to enjoy the few extra days off from work, try not to get too tempted by all the half price sales and spend some time re-connecting with the family and most importantly, Allah (swt).