Growing Up Muslim During Christmas


365 days - 12 months - 1 year ago

 I hosted my family's annual Holiday Party.

It's hard to believe it was just a year ago my family was whole. I thought about writing a post on Christmas decor: where I got the centerpiece, cups, and plates from, or colors and aesthetics for the table. I thought about it, because that's what a lifestyle post should sound like. I started writing and I realized, I'm not celebrating this year. I didn't feel this day come and growing up it was a day I always looked forward to. December 24th has always been our family holiday party. Growing up, Christmas time was always the best memories of my childhood. It was a family tradition more than a religious one, since majority of my family is Muslim. To many others outside my family, this was a strange concept. I was often asked how I could be Muslim and celebrate a Christian holiday. 

I grew up with a Muslim father and Catholic mother, although she didn’t like to be labeled. I love them both dearly, but my father didn't always approve or understand my mom's celebration. Raising me and my siblings in America, he held onto religion tightly. He didn't want us to be confused, he wanted us to be more excited for Ramadan - he basically had his own reasons as to why we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. But I never really understood where my dad was coming from. My mom never taught me to believe in Santa, she never took us to mass; to her it was more important to teach us about love.. about the importance of coming together and about happiness. She was a very spiritual and loving person, so to me Christmas has always been about family. Even as a kid, I’ve always understood my religion is Islam but my family and I just loved to spend time together whenever possible. But this is something I think is hard for others to understand. A tree, exchanging gifts, Christmas lights - it's all just decoration and fun. And that may seem strange to say, especially these days when we have to sound politically correct all the time. But it's the truth, to me Christmas was a time to be with my family, to get together and forget all our problems. 


My mother and my aunts grew up in Ecuador, and she would tell me stories of her Christmas celebrations growing up. When her father passed, my mom and her siblings continued celebrating Christmas with my abuelita (grandmother). My mother and aunts came to America from Ecuador after highschool. So in a new country - unfamiliar with the language, the people, the place in general - they held on to their Christmas tradition of celebrating as a family every year. And every year since, we would all get together - me, my siblings, my cousins - to dance and laugh, forget the world and just be together. Since my father and my uncles were Muslim, they chose not to participate. People would ask “Why not just celebrate Ramadan and Eid?” or “Why not go just as big for Eid instead?” The answer is we do, but also majority of my family in America is related to me from my mother's side. When our mothers got together, we all got together. We’d spend our Ramadan and Eids with each of our father's side of the family. 


But - last year was different. My mother had been struggling with cancer since 2014. And in 2016 she was in the hospital right before Christmas. So as a family we agreed to cancel our holiday party, but when I told my mom that, she wouldn't have it. Laying in her hospital bed, she got up, looked at me and said "don't cancel MY party" and we just started laughing. I knew what she meant. Christmas was the most important time of the year for her. Even though at that point my mother had recently converted to Islam, but she wanted - needed - family time. Miraculously, she was discharged December 23, 2016 but in her condition she couldn't leave the house, so we brought the party to her. My cousins helped me decorate the living room, we rented chairs and tables and bought nearly every decoration we could find from Michael's Craft Store, and I got my mother a beautiful white dress. 

What made it all the more special was my father decided to join us. As long as he set his ground rules which was: he wouldn't dance, wouldn’t exchange gifts - he'd just show his support for my mom then head to his bedroom, but that was more than enough for me. My mother was an angel walking among us. She loved to be happy, she would light up the room with her smile (she'd smile even when she was scared and in pain). And that night, being all together as a family, we forgot about the cancer, the hospital visits and all the pain.

All I remember is sitting across the table from my mom, just watching her smile and dance. She was happy and I was happy she was happy. In that moment, I was already dreaming of giving her a better party. I kept thinking next time when she's better, when she's healthy, when she's not suffering I'll be there to celebrate for her. I miss her everyday, but certain days like today, I'm reminded more of how much I miss her. There’s this pain in my heart knowing I won't see her smiling across the table from me again. But I'm reminded by Allah (God) that she truly is not suffering anymore. 

So when people ask me "What kind of Muslim are you to celebrate Christmas?” I'm the kind of Muslim willing to do anything to make my mother smile. Being together as a family is so powerful. My dad never left to go into his bedroom that night like he had planned. He was so happy to see my mom happy. I had never seen him so happy, so much so that he pulled me aside to tell me Christmas with the family is different than he ever imagined. He was sad I never convinced him to join us sooner, hugged me and returned to sit next to my mom. 


Why we chose December 24th specifically also bothered people. If it's just about family, why not exchange gifts on the 23rd or the 26th. (Trust me, I’ve been asked a lot of questions.) The 24th is a Hispanic tradition my mother brought from her childhood, why would I ever make her feel like she was wrong to do so. Every year I'd read statuses on Facebook saying things like "Stop celebrating Christmas just to fit it” or "Those who imitate people is one of them" you'd be surprised how many times I heard that growing up and I'd just laugh. I mean i get it: it’s two different religions, different customs and traditions. But the fact is it was never to fit in, it was never about religion, it was always about love & family. I lived in Egypt for a few years, it is predominantly a Muslim country and Ramadan is a huge celebration. And my Christian friends would join me and celebrate with me, so when invited I’d celebrate Christmas with them. Treat others the way we want to be treated, so why not enjoy time together (or even just wish others a Merry Christmas, Eid Mubarak, Happy Hanukkah.. etc). A lot of my Muslim friends share the same views and embrace the traditions of others. What's wrong with having a tree and exchanging gifts with friends, laughing and having fun. Why judge and make me feel like I'm less Muslim when I am so proud and happy to be one. 


When my non-Muslim friends and cousins would try to fast with me during Ramadan or join my family for Eid, never did I tell them "you're less faithful to your own religion". I've had a stranger tell me "Hey I'm not Muslim but Eid Mubarak" then ask if he pronounced it correctly and continue saying "I have friends who are Muslim and I’ve tried fasting with them before. It's a beautiful thing you guys do." Should I have told him he was just trying to fit in? (or do I welcome and encourage others to try and respect each other's religions). If it brings you joy, if it unites your friends and family, if it's just fun for you - then by all means celebrate what you want. 

That's what my mother always taught me, and until the day I am reunited with her, I will continue to share her teachings. I know to many people Christmas IS a religious holiday, I know some may even be offended that I choose to celebrate it for different reasons. But I've always been taught to gather with family whenever possible, you never know when the last time will be. I was raised to love people no matter their race, age, religion. Invite me to Hanukkah, invite me to Diwali, invite me to Kwanzaa and I will join because to me respecting and participating in other's celebrations is a humbling blessing. I would want that same feeling when I invite friends to join me for Ramadan dinners or Eid celebrations.

Growing up Muslim during Christmas was hard, it took my dad years to finally accept it. But I'd go through it all over again just to celebrate last year one more time. I think being with family is the biggest blessing of all, it's something we should cherish and thank God Allah (swt) for. Again, this is just my opinion and my experience. no one has to celebrate what they don't feel comfortable with, but no one should feel judged if they do. Who are we to judge others, Islam means Peace, the basis of all our religions is faith, love & Peace. So just be happy, show love and appreciate life. 

I know this post got very personal and way off topic of holiday decor. Happy Holidays everyone! I love and wish the best for you all.