Christmas Nostalgia & Other Convert Conundrums
I was blessed to discover and accept Islam when I was 19 years old. Up until that point, I had been a child, lazily exploring different faiths, but for the most part raised Christian. I dabbled in Buddhism, Wicca, Agnosticism, Atheism… I was trying to find my truth… but a sort of backdrop of my somewhat Christian upbringing was always there. (Side note: Never in my life do I recall my mother taking us to church, it was only when we lived with our grandmother, or later when I got involved in the whole Christian youth group thing in high school, that we took a more active role in actually practicing our faith.) Thus, it should be no surprise that Christianity was not really a factor in the celebrations of our holidays… I never, as a child, really understood what Easter was all about… for us it meant egg hunts, candy, mom’s delicious deviled eggs and, one year, apple bobbing and three-legged races put on by ten-year old yours truly. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Halloween… all just reasons to eat good food, have fun, and if you’re lucky, get presents. That was the gist of it.
It may be important to note here, that we were also very poor most of our lives… holidays were not always traditional. There were many years that there was nothing under the tree but what I made from junk Id found around the neighborhood, stuff I’d pilfered from the old abandoned house, one yard over, or the gifts we got from generous shelter/food bank giveaways. One year, I recall my sister and I were living with our dad and we stole Christmas gifts from our cousins because we didn’t have any. We got caught, of course, and with utter humiliation had to give it all back… but its safe to say, hard times were not unfamiliar to us and holidays were no exception.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Christmas became my favorite time of year. And no matter how dire our situation, I always strove to be festive and make the very best of the holiday… I was a hopeful, positive, kid… with tons of creativity and a desperate need to feel normal. And Christmas… with “Home Alone” and “Miracle on 34th Street” on the screen, “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells” looping over and over from library cassette tapes, the scent of pine trees and cinnamon, the warmth of wood crackling in a fireplace, white fluffy snow dusting your boots, and hot chocolate in a ceramic mug… all of this was the very epitome of normal. I love Christmas… with my whole heart and my family seemed to know that and accommodate.
No matter how poor we were, my mom almost always got a tree… it may have been small, but Id cry and beg and beg and she’d go out in front of the grocery store and get one to bring home… I would decorate it with makeshift baubles from keychains, fruit loops and popcorn (yes, I tried to eat it afterwards, yes it was stale and tasted like piney poison), then Id make little crafty gifts for everyone in the family… even my cats. And that was good enough. That was Christmas.
When I became Muslim, all of those holidays came to a very abrupt end. We have two holidays in Islam, Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha… and while they are probably extremely festive in Muslim countries, where everyone is celebrating together… they are not very warm or festive when you are the minority and you live in the land of Christmas and Easter magic. I hang up lights, decorate, play nasheeds, we go out and eat and do various things… I try to establish traditions, and I’m still trying.. but it lacks that magic and it saddens me.
I love Christmas. The scent of wood burning, pine trees, cinnamon soaked pine cones, gingerbread and gift wrapping. Building snowmen and making snow angels, slipping and sliding over the ice… even the nasty black sludgy mud snow at the curbs side… I miss it all. Christmas lights, hot cocoa and Christmas songs, oh Christmas songs, I still sing them (changing the words occasionally), and they bring a warmth to my heart. Christmas was just never a religious thing for our family, it was just that one time of year when things were right. When no matter how hard times were, there was love and joy and happiness and laughter. Christmas holds some of the very best memories of my life… and not a single one of those memories is about the presents… it’s all about family.
Now, you see, I will never celebrate Christmas again. Because, despite my family not celebrating for religious reasons, it is a religious holiday… one whose core beliefs I completely disagree with. I have been Muslim for 13 years and never have you seen a Christmas tree in my home and you never will, insha’Allah (God-willing). I suppose a lot of converts might not admit that they miss those holidays. Or maybe there are some who still celebrate, though for religious reasons, they absolutely shouldn’t. And indeed, that’s a whole other article, about imitating the kuffaar, the pagan roots of Christmas traditions, and so on and so forth. But the feeling of it, I miss, and I am very comfortable with being open about that. Christmas was a special time for me as a child and I wish I could replicate that feeling for my own kids with our own holidays.
I know if we were in a Muslim country it would be different. I know having all the stores around you decked out with Eid decor, families decorating their homes and visiting one another with gifts and excitement. Everyone in their best clothes, children laughing and singing nasheeds, and the beautiful glow of generosity and joy from every hand and every smile. I imagine it’s beautiful in other places. But for now, I’m right here. In the middle of America. And I want my children to look forward to Eid like I looked forward to Christmas. I want familiar scents to bring back a warm nostalgia, I want it to be about more than just gifts. I’m not sure how to do this… what should be the signature scent of Eid? What should I focus on? Cooking? Craft activities? Family games? What will make the Eid season unique and special in a country where it’s really only celebrated privately in our own homes. Where there’s not a strong sense of community and unity? Where our neighbors really have no idea whats going on.
As a convert, you can feel a little guilty missing these holidays… but as a mother, you can feel guilty that your kids wont experience it like you did. At my core, in my heart, I have no desire for my children to ever experience non-Muslim holidays. It may be hard for some people to understand, but I feel that I’m protecting them from a very glittery and irresistible path of misguidance. There’s more to Christmas than Santa Claus, rest assured. I only wish that their Eids could be as special as my Christmas was… and I feel like I’m failing them a bit in that. I want, desperately, to do more… and despite my efforts, I haven’t achieved that yet. I haven’t made Eid as special as it should be, I haven’t made it as warm and wonderful as the Christmas of my childhood. I suppose it’s a work in progress.
How do you feel about Christmas and similar holidays? How does your family celebrate Eid? If you’re a convert… how do you reconcile the two without compromising your faith? I’d love to hear how other parents are handling it. Please share your own experiences.