When I was a little Muslim girl growing up in Midwest USA, my Egyptian father did everything in his power to segregate us from Christmas. Christmas, we understood, was a religious holiday; someone else’s religious holiday.
I managed to get away with some things. At school I engaged in the arts & crafts activities of Christmas. Everyone at home appreciated the clove-covered apples wrapped in shiny ribbon that made a room smell nice. My father would not allow me to take part in Christmas plays or even watch them for that matter. But I did find myself humming along to Oh Holy Night and The Little Drummer Boy during music class. I couldn’t help it. They were catchy tunes. Those songs were overtly religious and were frowned upon by my father, as opposed to Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein Deer that were both allowed.
We never exchanged Christmas presents with friends at school. My mother’s family was a typical American Christian family. We never exchanged gifts or niceties with them nor did we visit them over Christmas. All this was perfectly fine for me as a child. It wasn’t my holiday. We received tons of gifts and had lots of festivities during our own religious holidays. And there were many other opportunities that were not overtly religious to visit friends and families and to exchange gifts with them. None of this ever meant that I did not enjoy the Christmas season. I loved the lights that lit up the cold, dark nights. I loved seeing Christmas trees in the neighborhood windows. And I loved the colors, scents, and sounds of Christmas.
As an adult living in Egypt, Christmas had very little meaning for me. I recall that in the 1980s some Muslim Egyptians would put up Christmas trees in their homes as a way to celebrate the New Year. That trickled away as Islamic conservatism took hold of the country. Hotels have always had special Christmas decorations and meals to keep the tourists happy while on holiday. Only at the end of 2002 did ousted President Hosni Mubarak announce that the following January 7, 2003 – the day of Coptic Christmas – would be an official holiday in Egypt. Before then, workplaces that were compassionate enough would give their Christian staff the day off or at the very least would give them time to go to church and then return to work.
Throughout all my years in Egypt, I have celebrated my Eid with my friends and family giving very little thought to how awkward the occasion may or may not be for my non-Muslim friends. Eid offered several days off for everyone, I thought. It’s a good thing. Everyone is enjoying themselves.
In recent years as I have become a little more understanding and hopefully more open-minded, I have made an effort to remember to send out a general Facebook message to my Christian friends in Egypt, wishing them a merry Christmas. They always reciprocate. But that was the limit of it. I am sure that some Egyptian Muslims and Christians reciprocate in much more meaningful ways. But it certainly is not widespread.
During the many years I worked with international colleagues as a journalist, I would make sure to send out an email to my Christian colleagues wishing them a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. It was never reciprocated on Eid, my religious holiday. Ever. After several years of this, I stopped.
My second marriage is to a wonderful Scotsman. We are on our second year of marriage and I continue to navigate through the awkwardness of Christmas but in different ways. I sincerely enjoy participating in my in-laws’ Christmas celebrations. It is a day of joy and of family gatherings. Last Christmas, my first with my in-laws, I asked my husband to send out a general message to his family asking them to kindly refrain from buying me gifts for Christmas. This was a religious holiday; their religious holiday. I wanted to be part of their happiness but that was it. They all complied graciously. I, on the other hand, was so excited about seeing everyone happy, especially the children, that I went out and bought presents for them all. The result was awkward. “But I didn’t get you anything,” my sister-in-law protested. I smiled. I had asked them not to.
I have now celebrated Eid four times in the UK. They were very lonely affairs. I had most of my family with me from Egypt during one of those Eids, so we managed to give that particular occasion some level of excitement. But I recall one horrible Eid when none of my family, excepting my husband, was present in the UK and I walked to the mosque on my own to pray the Eid prayer. It was a normal weekday. There were no signs of joy on the streets. There were no lights lit bright. People were rushing off to work with emotionless faces. Aside from my husband and the people I prayed next to in the mosque, no one wished me a happy Eid.
As someone who has lived on both sides of the religious majority/minority divide, I can safely say that something needs to be done. Our religious holidays mean so much to us but they mean so little to others. These holidays have religious significance, of course, but they also have a cultural significance that we can all appreciate and celebrate.
I ask myself as a member of a religious minority in the UK what my problem is with celebrating Christmas with family and friends on their terms. I know that I do not really have a problem with sending and receiving gifts, cards, or greetings on the day. Those are cultural practices that are not in any way overtly religious. But if my own religious holiday is not acknowledged, it feels to me as if I have acknowledged the importance of someone else’s religious occasion while the importance of mine has been ignored. It is acknowledgement that I seek.
A despotic Egyptian president gave such acknowledgement to the Christian minority in Egypt. By turning Coptic Christmas into a public holiday it has become a day of joy for both Muslims and Christians alike. Much more remains to be done in our country, of course, where sectarian conflict rears its ugly head much too often.
More changes need to be made as well in Western countries. The changes that need to happen are not necessarily at the government level. Small gestures, sometimes, have very big meaning. This acknowledgement that I speak of becomes exceptionally complicated in societies with minorities who belong to a wide variety of religions. It becomes complicated as well in societies where some prefer to keep religion to themselves rather than make it a public matter. At the very least, and until governments and societies manage to find the balance that gets it right, I will continue to try to make an effort to participate in the cultural aspects of joyous religious events important to my family and friends. I will try to make a conscious effort to be aware when their religious holidays happen. Should I expect even the simplest form of reciprocation? A Facebook message wishing me a happy Eid would mean the world to me. It is acknowledgement. It is an acknowledgement of an other and the things that are important to them.
Let me take this opportunity to apologize for all the years I intentionally or unintentionally failed to acknowledge my others’ important religious holiday. Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year to my Mom, my aunts, their spouses and ex-spouses, my cousins, their spouses and children, all my wonderful and accepting new in-laws, journalist colleagues all over the world, and to my very good friends in Egypt. I see you. I acknowledge the importance of this occasion to you. And I share your joy. May you have many more happy years to come.