The Christmas season is a bittersweet time for me as an American Muslim convert. I cherish my memories of Christmases past. I haven’t forgotten the excitement about Santa’s yearly visit: the letters I mailed to him (usually without stamps), the pictures my mom had taken of me on Santa’s knee, the selection and decoration of the tree, the visits to Secret Santa’s Gift Shop at Lazarus (the forerunner to Macy’s) to buy gifts for my parents and relatives, the cookies and milk we left out for Santa on Christmas Eve (as well as carrots for his reindeer), and the imagined sounds of reindeer hoofs on our roof and the sight of Santa’s ashy boot prints leading to and from our fireplace and the tree.
My parents went all out to celebrate Christmas (consider the boot prints). The beginning of the season was marked by the trek to the nursery to pick out the tree. Then out came all the Christmas records and sheet music, the time-honored recipes for Christmas cookies, the boxes and boxes of decorations and the invitations to our holiday parties (yes, in the plural). My sister and I were enlisted to implement all my mother’s ideas, which we outwardly complained about, but secretly loved. We knew this was a magical time of the year, especially for children.
But there was also another side to Christmas, one that is far more difficult to give up than the all the excitment about Santa. It was made up of snow-muffled nights when lights twinkled like stars that had come to earth, of sitting quietly in a dark room by the Christmas tree, of Candlelight Services at the church on Christmas Eve, of hymns like “O Holy Night” that started out quietly and built up to a thrilling crescendo. There was my mother’s childhood manger scene that always sat on our piano with one spare bulb illuminating the manger. There was the sense of tradition and of history and of peace and joy.
My grandfather was a Lutheran minister (which, besides Episcopalians, is the closest you can get to being a Catholic and still be a Protestant). I was baptized as a baby and raised in the Church. When I was in the second grade, my teacher told us the entire story of the Christian Jesus, from his birth to his death and resurrection. I remember being in tears by the end of the story. I couldn’t believe that God would do that for us. I went through catechism classes, I was confirmed in the Church. My confirmation Bible verse was “Be thou faithful until death and I will give you a crown of life.” (Revelations 2:10)
When I was 21, I re-affirmed my relationship with Jesus Christ by becoming what is sometimes called a “born-again Christian.” I felt a deep connection to Jesus and what he had sacrificed to bring peace and salvation to the Earth. Soon after, I began having children of my own. My husband, and their father, was a minister and also a “born-again Christian.” In our decade-long marriage, we always emphasized the Jesus side of the Christmas story (as in “Jesus is the reason for the season”). We taught them about Santa Claus as well, but always made sure to remind the children that the reason we give gifts at Christmas is to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.
But like all children, it was Santa they focused on. They understood that we were celebrating Jesus’ birthday, but I’m sure they didn’t understand his significance. It’s easy to get a child to parrot that Jesus is God’s son; but did they really know what that meant? And I’m sure they wondered, like I did when I was a child, why we gave gifts to each other instead of to Jesus. Was it because he was no longer alive?
After their father and I divorced, I continued to celebrate Christmas but it was their father who kept reminding them that Jesus was their Lord and Savior.
There’s no denying that the Christmas story is appealing. Little children can identify with the baby. And it’s made obvious to them from day one that it’s a very special time of the year. It’s not until they become older, when they’re told that there’s no Santa, that they begin to wonder if Jesus is also a made-up character. But by that time, who wants to break the spell?
That’s what becoming a Muslim has meant for me: breaking the spell that is Christmas. Actually, to be fair, that spell was broken long before I became a Muslim. I’m not a stupid person; I could see the contradictions and misconceptions surrounding Christmas. The emphasis on getting gifts instead of giving them. The commercialism. The lack of mention in the Bible about the Trinity. And why in the world do we build up a child’s faith in Santa, only to reveal him as a fake when they get older? What does that teach them about faith in general, but especially about faith in God?
I am so thankful to God that my faith in Him has “survived” Christmas. I no longer believe, or need to believe, that Jesus is God’s son. But I do believe that he existed and that he is one of the greater prophets, even to Muslims. I can accept that God has a special plan for him without feeling like I have to worship him. I value Christmas for what it teaches us about what the Prophet Jesus taught when he was on Earth: That God is Loving and Forgiving, our Creator and thus in a sense our Father, and that He promises us Eternal Life if we only believe in Him, submit to His will, ask for His forgiveness and do all that we can to bring about justice and peace to the world.
That should be the real message of Christmas.