I’ve heard both sides of the debate and all kinds of opinions in between. Whether or not Muslims should participate in any way in Christmas celebrations is a hot issue, especially for converts. I’ve been a Muslim for over a year now, so I’m going through my second Christmas season. And to tell you the truth, I have mixed feelings about what I should do about it.
Last year I got gifts for people, but we didn’t decorate. I did send out holiday cards, but as far as I can remember they didn’t say anything about Christmas. I suppose I shouldn’t be sending cards, but I’ve ordered some to send this year with a purely secular message. I felt that I couldn’t just stop sending cards to all the people who are used to getting cards from me. I’ve considered including notes to tell people about my conversion, but I don’t know if I will. My close friends already know and my acquaintances don’t necessarily need to know.
I’m having dinner here for the family on Christmas Eve and I’m making stockings for everyone. I’m not buying presents beyond some little items to put in the stockings. Next year I may not even do this much.
But the bottom line is: my family still participates in Christmas and I don’t want them to feel like I’ve severed my ties with them just because I’ve become a Muslim.
Born Muslims usually don’t feel any pressure to celebrate Christmas because it has never been a part of their culture. But converts, especially those who come from a Christian background, usually find it very difficult to cut their ties to Christmas. They have fond memories of the Christmases they celebrated in the past, especially when they were children. They remember the excitement of Christmas Eve, the wonder of Christmas morning and the joy of Christmas get-togethers. Christmas, and the month or so leading up to it, is just as important to Christians (and even some non-Christians) as Ramadan is to Muslims.
Some converts deal with this dilemma by leaving behind their non-Muslims lives completely. They won’t even go to someone’s house for dinner unless the meal is halal and there is no alcohol being served. They most certainly would not buy Christmas gifts. But other converts feel that it is important to participate at least nominally with the customs their family still observes. I have a problem with Muslims who totally separate themselves from non-Muslim activities. How do we expect non-Muslims to get to know us if we refuse to do anything with them?
Some Muslims think that participating in Christmas, even in a purely secular way, is a form of shirk, or idolatry. But I don’t think that’s the case (unless, of course, you’re celebrating Christmas as the birth of the Son of God). On the other extreme you have Muslims who think it’s all right to celebrate Jesus’ birth because he was one of God’s prophets. But do these same Muslims celebrate other prophets’ births (especially Mohammad’s)? Isn’t that really a rationalization so that they don’t feel guilty for participating?
In order to determine how much or if we will recognize Christmas, we need to understand how and why non-Muslims celebrate Christmas. Basically, there are two ways to celebrate it: the sacred (or religious) way and the secular way.
There are Christians who proclaim that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” They tend to get upset about the commercialization of Christmas (although that doesn’t keep them from buying Christmas presents). The more devout downplay things like non-religious songs (like “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman”) and are more likely to be in church on Christmas Eve, or even Christmas Day.
Some people who aren’t religious at all still feel that it’s all right to celebrate Christmas because it has pagan roots. They believe that Jesus’ birth was tacked on to winter solstice celebrations. (It’s commonly believed that Jesus was not born on December 25th anyway.) They more or less erase Jesus from the picture and feel comfortable emphasizing the spirit of Christmas instead, which can be summed up as: “Peace on Earth, Good will toward men.” Or they simply see Christmas as an opportunity to get together with family and friends and to show them that you care by giving them gifts. They send Christmas cards, not to celebrate Jesus’ birth, but just to keep in touch with people they haven’t talked to all year.
Is there some room for compromise if we adapt some of the secular ways to celebrate Christmas? Maybe. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wishing non-Muslims “Merry Christmas,” for instance. After all, don’t we like it when non-Muslims wish us “Happy Ramadan”? And I see no reason why we can’t attend holiday parties as long as we watch what we eat and drink. Of course, the most important thing is that you make it clear that you’re a Muslim. I don’t have that problem because I wear the hijab. But I also have to make it clear why being a Muslim is different. Some converts stay away from holiday gatherings for that reason. But I think it’s possible to attend as a representative of Islam.
One of the biggest problems that converts face is making the transition from whatever they were before to being a Muslim. Holding onto Christmas traditions could slow that process. And yet I think it’s important to take others into account when you decide how strict you’re going to be. Your family and close friends have to get used to you being a Muslim, too.