The homes on my street are starting to light up; every few days someone else in the neighbourhood has switched on a little Christmas. The stores are festive and the mall parking lots are more full – but not yet frantic. It’s a time of year anticipated by many around the globe, and as the world gets smaller, the Christmas season is full of new stories. Like mine.
Before I let you in on my Christmases past and present, I have to tell you that this is my story and mine alone. We must never assume that one story represents more than it does. Instead we can try to see our own reflections in the words of others.
Growing up, my family didn’t celebrate Christmas. Not in the way of the big tree and advent calendars. Having moved to Canada from Kenya, living in a predominantly Muslim part of town, it was Eid that lit up the streets for my parents, not Christmas. So, the tradition never felt like ours to begin with and I grew up not really minding that Santa didn’t come to my house. Instead, I loved the couple weeks off school and the family time. But the more time we spent in Canada, the more Christmas took on a new feeling. There was something wonderful about the lights and the anticipation of presents (I mean, who doesn’t like presents?). There were the carols I sang with my whole heart, the love I felt for Jesus who I was always taught was an example of Love. Being that I am Muslim, Jesus is a big part of my faith. It’s the carols that I loved most about Christmas and, once I started playing the piano, there was never a day that went by during the season that I wasn’t pounding them out on the keys.
But we still didn’t go all out. The closest we got to presents under a tree in my family home was a large houseplant and a couple gifts for us kids. In high school, I started trading small gifts with a few friends, and then eventually would spend the occasional Christmas Eve or morning at a friend’s place who hosted many families who also didn’t have traditional Christmas at home. We always had a family dinner in our own home too, not necessarily on Christmas Eve or Day, but at some point during the holidays. And it was always a traditional Indian meal, not turkey and trimmings. But those are precious memories and I don’t feel I missed out on anything. There was still Christmas in our home; it just looked different.
So when I was newly married and living in the teeny tiny fairly homogenous town of Niagara Falls, Ontario, I was caught off guard by the number of people who couldn’t believe my husband and I didn’t celebrate Christmas in the way that they did. In fact, the receptionist at my chiropractor’s office told me she felt sorry for us. I know she meant well, so I explained that it was really okay, that I celebrated things she didn’t and that didn’t make me feel sorry for her. I wished her a very Merry Christmas but in that moment I felt so totally out of place in a town that didn’t fully accept me.
I know that’s not necessarily just a small-town sentiment. There are many people in my own large city who have a hard time with others who don’t do Christmas at all, or who are unsure of where they belong on the Christmas spectrum, simply because it was never a tradition they grew up with. Unless you are in that position of making a decision like that, or have ever tried to work out the details of merging cultures, you can’t really judge. My parents always taught me to love Jesus and his teachings. Yet a tree and gifts and Santa weren’t part of their story.
After I left the chiropractor’s office that day in Niagara Falls, I drove home in the slushy, snowy afternoon as the sun slowly left the day. I cried when I reached our little apartment, feeling homesick and anchorless. That evening, my husband and I talked about what Christmas might look like in our home once we had kids. We both were okay not doing the tree and everything else, and instead decided we would really do up one of our cultural traditions that was beginning to lose its prominence in our Canadian homes. We don’t get the first day of Spring off just because it’s our New Year, but we decided we would celebrate it on the first weekend closest to it. Maybe if we highlighted that very special day for us, our kids might be okay to not have Christmas.
This worked really well until our oldest started Kindergarten. As Christmas drew nearer that first year of big-girl school, our daughter told us all about what to expect. She told us that Santa would come and put presents under a tree that we would put up in our home. And we’d put up stockings because he would leave special treats in those, too. And at that point, we had to make a decision: do we tell her that that doesn’t happen in our home, or do we go along with it and see where it takes us?
If you come over to my place on the first Sunday of December, you can help us put up our tree and the gazillion ornaments we have collected since that year my daughter told us about Christmas with that twinkle in her eye. You can help us hang our stockings – all 5 of them – on special stocking holders, and then decorate our mantle, dining table, kitchen island and the glass table in our front lobby. You’ll hear Christmas carols blaring from our TV’s sound system, and from our mouths. You’ll feel the excitement of children who believe with all their hearts in the magic of this season. You’ll hear me remind them over the din of it all, that Christmas is about our Prophet Issa (Jesus’ name in Arabic) and then you’ll see by the expression on my face that I’m thinking this perhaps might be something I’d need to tell them outside of this particular type of excitement.
I’m telling you my story because this time of year also brings with it a lot of confusion for people on all points of the Christmas spectrum. Those who want to celebrate but are not sure to what degree. Those who want to raise their children to honour their own cultural traditions that have been in their family from the beginning of time, whether that is Christmas or not. Those who say Merry Christmas and pound out carols on their piano but who eat an Indian meal instead of turkey on the big day. Those who worry that Christmas is being diluted by political correctness and those who think Canada is a Christian country and therefore, Christmas should be honoured by all. We’re a mixed-bag, us Canadians, and we’re still learning individually and collectively what that means.
I ask that we all keep an open mind and remember that every culture has something they celebrate that encourages goodness, kindness, joy and family. Focus on the family traditions – new and old – that bring out the best in you and let that best part of you light up your home all year-round.
RELATED: Raising Kids In An Interfaith Family