“It's going to be a small Christmas this year," my mother promises, for the fifteenth year in a row: it's a promise that she and my father can never keep, and no one takes her seriously this year either. It's not so much the mountain of gifts that make us doubt her promise each year, but rather the way that Christmas descends upon our house.
Our tree stands nine feet tall and is decorated with the utmost care: lights, tinsel, candy canes and all. Christmas ornaments are ceremoniously brought down from the attic in mid-December and placed gently on each limb of the tree. Some of the ornaments were once my great grandmother’s, my mother points out each year—as if a century-old ornament is something I could ever forget. Our stockings are hung on the mantle, each with one of our names, above our troupe of nutcrackers. Our little town of ceramic ice-frosted houses twinkles gently on our dining room mantle. And on Christmas morning, eggs and (turkey) bacon, homemade cinnamon buns, eggnog and coffee are served, as Christmas carols drift softly from our satellite radio (my dad's all time favorite Christmas gift from "the kids"). This year, we're installing satellite radio in his car, which might just be his new favorite gift from "the kids". With the presents piled high around the room, we take our annual Christmas morning photo, steaming beverages in hand, sleep still in our eyes, and Pierre, our French poodle puppy, sits front and centre, holding his new stuffed toy from Santa (as the wrapping paper says) that he couldn't wait to unwrap.
We definitely do Christmas right at our house. The only thing is, we are not Christian. Nope. We are Muslim. Sufi Muslim. Islam was the path my parents chose decades before my siblings and I were born, and Islam is the only path I've ever known—Christmas, Easter, Chanukah, Eid and all. At our house, we celebrate everything. Why? I asked my mother the same question finally, when I realised that this wasn't normal. Her response was simple and full of logic. For one, both my parents grew up Christian and celebrated Christmas as kids. But beyond that, she explained that she never wanted us to feel like we were missing out on the holidays. Most importantly however, she didn’t want us to feel different from the other kids in the neighbourhood and at school. She wanted to give us a normal childhood; though, in retrospect, celebrating all the holidays probably wasn’t the most normal thing she could have done after all. We already had a hard enough time with our funny names. I mean, let’s be real here. Fahrinisa, which is an ancient Persian name, Nuriya, which is definitely not an American name, and Hasan (that one is too obvious) do kind of, sort of make us stand out a tad. Just a little. Especially when you get a look at us: blond, blue-eyed, and very fair. I do understand how it could be a bit confusing to someone who doesn’t know my family.
So we have celebrated Christmas for as long as I can remember. I have to admit however, that for many years I didn’t know the connection between Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and Christmas. And, to be dreadfully honest, perhaps a little sacrilegious even, it made no difference what the connection was. Christmas wasn’t ever a religious holiday for us like Eid was. Christmas was a different kind of holiday. It was for celebrating family. It was only later in life during our school’s Shepherd’s Play, starring our gym teacher as Joseph and our Eurhythmy teacher as mother Mary, that I learned what Christmas really symbolised. Perhaps, since I was so much older when this happened, the religious aspect never really stuck. But it didn’t matter. Christmas was still special.
Throughout my high school years, the month of December was chock-full of holidays: Christmas, Yom Kipper, Eid—the Muslim and Jewish (lunar) calendar had their two major holidays falling very near Christmas for several years. For us, December was a big jumble of traditions and religions. What was especially confusing was that St. Nicholas—different from Santa Claus—would also come to our home around December 6th. He would come while we were at school and fill our shoes that we left out for him with apples, carrots, and carob nibs, leaving reindeer prints in the snow. Saint Nicholas always struck me as a very health conscious guy. I imagined he had a much slimmer figure than Santa Claus and ran alongside his reindeer instead of being pulled by them in a big red sleigh. We also left Santa Claus milk and homemade butter cookies with colourful frosting. We left St. Nicholas horse treats for his reindeer. Three weeks after St. Nicholas visited us, Santa Claus made sure to fill our stockings with brightly-coloured sour patch kids, maple sugar candies, and Bubbaliscious gum. I secretly preferred Santa Claus, for obvious reasons.
From an outsider’s perspective, our Christmas celebrations look like any other. We have the properly decorated pine tree topped with the Christmas angel, or North Star depending on the mood of the year. Some years, my parents even opted for a pine tree with the root ball still intact so that we could plant it in our backyard when we were done using it inside. We have the fireplace with our stocking hanging from the mantle. We have our troupe of nutcrackers and our winter scene of twinkling ice-frosted little houses. We also have our Twelve Days of Christmas calendar and we elaborately decorate gingerbread houses made from scratch. We drink (alcohol-free) eggnog starting in December; mulled apple cider by the fireside instead of mulled wine; and sparkling apple cider on Christmas Eve instead of champagne. And outside, our trees and bushes are carefully and lovingly wrapped in twinkling Christmas lights. During the years that Christmas and Eid coincided, our Eid lights became our Christmas lights and vice versa. During those years, it was especially difficult to tell which holiday we were celebrating.
The only real difference between our Christmas and that of our neighbour’s is that on the Muslim calendar, which hangs on our refrigerator, Christmas is not a national holiday. Jesus Christ is definitely a very special saint for us though, appearing more times in the Qu’ran than the Prophet Muhammad himself. So really, how different from our neighbour's "Christian" Christmas is our “Muslim” Christmas? I would bet that it's not so different after all. At our house, we grew up thinking that holidays were about spending time with family, sharing gifts, of course, but also stories and memories and love. I suspect that this is not a bad thing, even if we are Muslims celebrating a Christian holiday. Nor do I think it’s very different from what Christmas means for most other people.
A New York City native, Fahrinisa Oswald currently does not have a fixed address, spending most of her time somewhere between NYC, Asia and the Middle East writing, photographing and editing for a living.