A Celebration for Everybody
Picture my family, the Mouallems, through the bay window of our home as we erect our Christmas tree. It’s 1997 in northern Alberta, Canada. Snow piles up across the front lawn like arctic dunes.
My brother, Ali, the tallest, has just crowned the tree with a star when, on the count of three, our mother plugs in the lights. Our effervescent smiles radiate almost as brightly. It would be the perfect holiday postcard if not for a few key details.
For one, there are no young children present. At 11, I’m the youngest by three years, which wouldn’t be peculiar if not for the fact that it’s our first Christmas tree. Oh, and it’s not a tree—it’s the most robust houseplant we could adorn without having it slouch under the weight.
Also, it’s not Christmas. It’s Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month, a time for fasting, contemplation and prayer, not tinsel and jubilation. Further, it’s not even December. Because the Islamic calendar moves back 11 days each year, it was late January in 1997 when we put up our decorations.
Another thing you can’t see is that it’s a secret. My dad was on a trip to his homeland, Lebanon, and was unaware of this brief brush with the Christian holiday. In our household, we didn’t celebrate Christmas. But with Dad away, my sister, Janine, convinced our mom that it would be totally halal if we crossed party lines—just this once.
“We will be doing Ramadan differently this year,” she told Ali and me. “We will be having a Christmas Ramadan.”
Non-Christian immigrant children often grow up to have a different outlook about Christmas. Even after the curtain is pulled and Santa is revealed to be little more than a credit card, it becomes no easier. Forgoing Christmas becomes a choice—a decision not to indulge in what is the best holiday of the year, bar none.
Some children may overcompensate for this absence, as I did. That meant playing up for my friends in rural Canada, the joy of “Muslim Christmas.”
This holiday is better known as Eid al-Fitr and marks a new lunar cycle at the end of Ramadan. For the first few years of my life, Eid meant going to mosque and maybe getting a new sweater. But upon reaching the age where one gains a concept of money, I was deemed ready for the traditional gift of cold, hard cash.
It came from aunties and uncles, in bills blue, purple and green. All we had to do for it was kiss the elder on each cheek and recite an Arabic phrase: “May every year find you in good health.” I relished going to mosque on Eid morning because it meant more cheeks and more money.
But, in Islam, when one reaches puberty, one is compelled to fast during Ramadan, from sun-up to sundown. No food or drink during daylight hours for a month. My morale waned.
By the time I was 11, Eid didn’t arrive with the same glee as before. Sensing our declining enthusiasm Janine had hatched the Christmas plan with our mother.
A few days before the Eid of 1997, my mother walked into my bedroom as I was wrapping her presents. I shoved everything under the bed, like a junkie in a drug raid. She started interrogating me. “Are you keeping secrets from your mother?” I showed her the half-wrapped bottle of perfume. She had forgotten about Christmas Ramadan.
Obviously, it wasn’t her thing, but she went along with it anyway, feigning surprise on the morning of our Eid Al-Fitr-Christmas. We re-enacted the studied TV Christmas specials that had been broadcast into our living rooms for years. Sitting on the floor, surrounded by piles of wrapping paper and a very special houseplant, we passed around presents and followed each surprise with a hug. I was overcome with holiday warmth and fuzziness.
It was kind of my relatives to dish out money throughout my childhood, but cash gifts are about generosity, not understanding. Presents, done well, really make you think of the people in your life. Gift-giving may be steeped in consumerism and capitalism, but it is nevertheless the language of love.
More than a decade would pass before I would have another Christmas. It wasn’t until I met my wife, Janae, seven years ago, that I had my first real Christmas, a Jamieson family Christmas. Lights, wreath, eggnog—their home in December is a checklist of Christmas classics.
On my first Christmas morning with them, I entered to find 30 presents piled around the tree, despite there being just four Jamiesons. And 11 stockings! “Are we expecting more family?” I asked. No, my future mother-in-law explained. Three were for the living cats, two were in memory of the deceased cats, one was for my own cat at home. And the last one? “It’s for you,” she said.
I sat around a tree and opened a mystery gift from “Santa.” I gulped rummy eggnog while Mariah Carey’s Christmas album plays in the background. It is hokey, and it is wonderful. The holiday spirit infected me and spread to my extremities.
However, until recently, my love of the season was my deepest, darkest family secret. I have broken a lot of sensitive news to my parents, but the hardest was coming out of the Christmas closet.
A few Decembers ago, I invited them over. Against the backdrop of our glittering tree and stockings dangling above the crackling fire, I explained to them that Christmas belongs to all of us — Christians, Muslims, atheists — that it is a non-denominational holiday everybody can enjoy. Christmas makes me feel great, so why fight it?