Holiday season is upon us!
Unfortunately, in a year like this, there is not much cheer to be found for anyone. Where families around the country and around the world would be gathering to spend time together for Christmas and New Year’s, they are separate, planning virtual gatherings or, even worse, coping with the losses of their loved ones to COVID-19.
But they are still trying to find something to celebrate, if only the end of a truly terrible year.
Normally, around this time, my extended family and I would be coming together for the holidays. Most of my closest relatives are, ironically, spread the farthest from each other across the world. During the typical holiday season, we would congregate in my aunt’s home here in Albany, New York. One family would come from down the road, driving two minutes through the snow. The other would drive about seven hours from Canada. And the other family would get here via an eight-hour flight from Sweden. Once or twice, my aunt and uncle who live in New Delhi joined us, after a whopping whole day of travel time.
Quite the typical Christmas family tradition, it would seem.
But we are Indian Muslims, crossed with American, Swedish, or Canadian.
We don’t celebrate Christmas in the religious sense, but since everyone is usually available at that time, we come together, across oceans and continents to exchange gifts and have big meals together. This tradition to meet over the holidays only started recently but it has been a joyous time every year that we all look forward to.
Of course, there is some hesitation to celebrate the holidays in this way. Primarily that this isn’t our holiday. We have our own religious celebrations, and some of my family members have repeatedly emphasized that our religious traditions should not be equated with the religious traditions that Christians observe during these holidays.
They are not wrong. It is not in our religion to observe the traditions in Christmas. It is not in our religion to celebrate Christmas.
But we don’t really celebrate Christmas. We celebrate the occasion of our coming together.
This year, since we won’t be coming together, the debate over how to “celebrate” has started up again.
This is a debate that will continue. But a lot of it stems from being afraid of losing our culture, specifically being afraid of the children who grow up here losing our culture, and subsequently our religious traditions. But if they are taught to enjoy and respect our holidays, then what is there to fear?
Many of the generation older than us, who immigrated to a different country in the hopes of working towards a better future for them and their children, were the only ones like them in their respective communities. With so many other different religions and cultures around them, they embraced their own even more, almost defensively emphasizing their pride and steadfast belief in what they have always known.
But we, their children, are growing up in an entirely different era and culture. That is, of course, due to the Internet and its seemingly infinite reach, but also the changing demographics of our communities. Where our parents used to be the only “different” members of their communities, we have grown up in communities with people like us and unlike us, and we don’t see it as something to defend against. That’s just what we have always known.
My sisters have gotten quite used to explaining to their friends that we don’t actually celebrate Christmas, but that we just give each other gifts and get together, in the impossibly distant pre-COVID times. My father always wishes people a “Merry Christmas" or “Happy Holidays” to cashiers or when signing off a meeting around the holidays.
Every Eid-ul-Fitr we wake up early in the morning to go to the mosque, buzzing with excitement with our new clothes and for the day of celebrations ahead. (In non-COVID times) we usually visit family friends’ houses and enjoy each other’s company and of course, all the wonderful food. My mother, sisters, and I have an annual tradition on Eid to take a picture of our hands with newly-done mehndi. We celebrate the end of the month of Ramadan, with our close friends and family, and our community as a whole.
Enjoying both Christmas and Eid is possible. Both are occasions of joy and joy only ever multiplies when it is shared.
When my family and I lived in India, we took part in the Diwali celebrations, lighting fireworks and watching them burst above the city lights. My mother has told me stories of how she celebrated Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, with her friends, Hindu or Muslim, and thoroughly enjoying it. If we took part in celebrations there, then why can’t we do so here?
We were just celebrating Diwali and Holi in India because they were part of the culture. Does that same principle not apply to Christmas here?
Perhaps we don’t need to react defensively around the holidays. We do not need to be insecure about our religious traditions. This insecurity manifests itself in the children growing up here too. So much so that a classmate of my eight-year-old sister told her she wasn’t Muslim because she ate a certain flavor of Doritos.
It’s a difficult line to walk, but is it not better than trying constantly to “preserve our traditions”? Constantly being afraid of losing our culture?
Maybe we’re just evolving.
I am not saying we should observe all the religious traditions of Christmas, but we don’t need to completely shut out anything and everything from the culture we live in now.
It doesn’t just have to be one or the other.
Life is not just extremes and being at the intersection of cultures as we are, we know this better than most.
We can use this time, as those who celebrate do, to come together with our families and celebrate each other’s company. We can even go as far as to get gifts for each other in celebration of being together.
So, should we really celebrate Christmas?
No, but we can always celebrate each other.