Is Christmas the New Eid?!
Guest post by Syima Aslam
A few weeks ago my daughter announced that she had written her letter to Santa. As we were only at the start of October I explained that Santa didn’t like receiving mail so early in the year – we were best leaving it a while! However, her eagerness made me realise that the Festival that looms large for my child is not the Muslim festival of Eid, but Christmas!
Growing up, I had little to do with Christmas. At junior school I made paper chains and Christmas tree decorations, but wasn’t allowed to attend the Carol Service as it didn’t take place during school time. After the Christmas holidays, as the only Muslim child in my class I would feel left out, as everybody compared Christmas presents, but would console myself with the thought of Eid. Once I reached senior school, I exchanged gifts with my school friends, attended the Carol service and religiously bought a TV guide. The special programmes were my Christmas highlight, especially films like Mary Poppins! Beyond school and TV, Christmas played no part in my home life. Although my parents gave due reverence to Jesus and Mary, they didn’t see Christmas as “ours”. They were enmeshed in keeping a tight hold of their own culture and scared of “foreign” influences that might, dilute their values and, “steal” their child. To allow a celebration of Christmas, beyond school, would have been a step too far.
For my daughter, the experience is a different one. Prior to school we only celebrated the two Eids, and paid no homage to Christmas. Once we arrived at school Christmas, Father Christmas and Nativity plays loomed large, and the scenario changed. I quite liked having an excuse to attend a carol service again, and sing all the old favourites. My daughter’s reaction at not landing the part of Mary was priceless – she felt her colouring was more in character than her friend’s blonde hair and blue eyes! By Year 2, given she had written her letter to Santa, we went and bought a Christmas tree – not without a thrill of excitement on my part at the thought of decorating it! I decided that, a) Santa had to have somewhere to put the presents and, b) it was perfectly fine given that Jesus is one of the five greatest prophets in Islam. Jesus in Islam is inextricably linked with Mary who, as well as being the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an, has a whole chapter named after her. Although the Father Christmas connection is stronger in terms of commercialism than religion, it certainly does work a treat in terms of good behaviour!
The issue that I’m having as we go along, however, is that given the whole festive mix of holidays, Christmas tree and presents, Eid just doesn’t pack quite the same punch. However my aim, in celebrating all the festivals, is to ensure that my daughter doesn’t grow up with the split home/school culture that was an integral part of my upbringing. I want her to have a cultural experience that allows her to embrace all parts of her identity. In my eyes there is no conflict of, Eid vs. Christmas or, Islam vs. Christianity. Unlike my parents, I’m not scared of losing my daughter to Christianity – I see the central figures of Christianity as an integral part of my Islamic heritage and belief. I’m not scared of losing her to an alien culture because it is actually my culture. My reference points are just as much Byron and Austen, as they are Iqbal and Chughtai. I don’t want my daughter to see Christmas as something alien although, I have to say, my initial aspirations were more to do with the recognition of Jesus as part of the Islamic tradition than with Father Christmas! I hope that as she grows older and has a fuller grasp of the significance of the various festivals, and as she grows out of Father Christmas, she will realise and appreciate the importance of each festival for what it is in essence.
Today is the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, the annual celebration that marks the completion of the Hajj pilgrimage. A number of the Hajj rites are linked to the Prophet Abraham and his family. The finale is the sacrificing of an animal, in remembrance of the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael, when he perceived this to be the will of God. In both the Bible and the Qur’an Ishmael was replaced, at the last moment, by a lamb. This rite is re-enacted annually not only by the pilgrims in Mecca, but also by Muslims the whole world over.
Bizarre as it may sound, one of my fondest childhood memories of Pakistan is of the lamb that my father had bought for the sacrifice. A sacrificial animal, as it is destined for God, is given special treatment and I spent an inordinate amount of time proudly decorating it with dyes to make it look suitably festive. The fact that the lamb would be sacrificed a few weeks later did not perturb my seven year old self! On Eid al-Adha, every family who can afford it will sacrifice an animal and distribute the meat amongst family, friends and the poor. In fact, for women, a big part of Eid al-Adha can be spent elbow deep in meat. Of course, the richer you are the bigger the animal – a classic religious take on keeping up with the Joneses!
The experience of Eid for my daughter is different to mine. She has never experienced the celebration in a Muslim country where the occasion is marked by public holidays, and a general air of festivity, in which everyone partakes. For her this is a festivity confined to our own home, or those of friends and family. On Eid al-Adha as well as Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of the fasting in the month of Ramadhan, it is traditional to wear new clothes. Eid al-Fitr also has the traditional bonus of children receiving a gift of money from all and sundry. Every family member and friend who visits, or is visited, will give “eidi” or Eid money – generating much competition amongst children to see who has received the most. My daughter, therefore, receives not only new clothes and a present, an input from Christmas, but also eidi on both the Eid festivals. She refuses, for obvious monetary reasons, to understand that eidi applies only to the Eid al-Fitr! As far as my daughter’s concerned, celebrating both Muslim festivals as well as Christmas makes the year one festive round of celebrations. As soon as one festival finishes she starts calculating the time to the next one!
Syima Aslam is a Bradford based blogger reflecting on Islam, feminism, culture and parenting.