By Phoebe Farag Mikhail
Are you a non-Christian who celebrates Christmas? Recently my Muslim friend Eman posted this question on her Facebook page. She had read an interesting article from the Pew Research Center with a surprising statistic: 81% of non-Christians in the United States celebrate Christmas. Some of the responses to Eman’s question astounded me, and as a Christian who celebrates Christmas as a religious holiday, gave me much food for thought.
Many people who were Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or non-religious said that they joined in the Christmas festivities for the opportunity to spend time with family and give gifts. Many are part of interfaith families and celebrate with the Christian branch of their family. Sairah A. took this a bit further: “For me it’s not about the birth of Christ per se, it’s also about celebrating the community I live in. I give gifts for Christmas but also for Eid, and do lunch for my work staff for both so they understand the importance of my holidays in the context of their own.” I love how Sairah celebrates as a part of her community and also sees Christmas as a bridge for helping her community understand her faith.
Nabeela Rasheed connects the season directly to her own Muslim faith, which acknowledges Jesus as a prophet and believes in the Virgin birth:
…[F]or me it is a season full of love and light. I love everything about it. The sounds, the smells, the joy, the greetings. I love sitting down and sending cards. I love holiday parties. I love cooking the turkey on that day. I love celebrating that it is the birth of the prophet Jesus Christ. I love that it brings people together. I love that the Christmas tree, truly a pagan symbol of winter brings nature (complete with spiders and flies) into the house. It is about unity, it is about faith, it is about love, and aspiration for peace, a time for thankfulness for our loved ones and for God, a wish of joy to the world that the angels and Gabriel wished to the world on a holy night. I DO NOT think it will become like Halloween in 100 years. It is so much more. I LOVE CHRISTMAS. OOOHH, and its sparkly.
Many people, like Nabeela, expressed their enjoyment of the external elements of the season, the lights, the music, the festive decorations, and the overall sense of happiness and cheer the season brings. However, I love how Nabeela points out how Christmas is more than this, that it is about unity, faith, love, “aspiration for peace,” a “time for thankfulness” and “a wish of joy to the world.”
My favorite response is that of Maryam Mirza:
We used to celebrate Christmas when I was still living in Pakistan coz my mom’s best friend was Christian. For my mom, it was more about making sure her best friend doesn’t feel marginalized and a minority. In US I’ve always celebrated Christmas coz now my best friend is Christian and when I was new in this country, she and her family were the only ones I knew and her mom kind of adopted me too. I never give explanations or apologize for this.
In a country like Pakistan, where religious minorities are very much marginalized and often persecuted, this kindness of Maryam’s mother towards her friend is so significant. My parents, who grew up in Egypt, often mentioned how their Muslim neighbors and friends would wish them many happy returns on the feast, but none had actually celebrated Christmas with them. I love how it came full circle when Maryam experienced the hospitality of her Christian best friend’s family in the United States, and celebrates Christmas with them now, too.
As Christians celebrate the Nativity of Christ, the hospitality aspect of the holiday is so important because the Holy Family had no home, or room, to stay in when Christ was born. Welcoming Christ in our homes means welcoming anyone who has no place to celebrate the feast. The sense of warmth and cheer of the Christmas season should envelop everyone, Christian or not, if we Christians are doing Christmas right.
There are, in fact, many ways in which Christmas is not done right. Many people, even non-Christians, decry the commercialization of Christmas in the West, the reduction of the holiday to gift giving, lights, trees, decorations, Santa Claus, and financial stress. The same Pew Research Center article notes that 46% of its survey respondents said gift-giving at Christmas “makes them feel stretched thin financially,” 36% felt “stressed out” and 23% feel “wasteful.” Sadly, the commercialization of Christmas that has changed perceptions and expectations about the season is what has made Christmas so stressful, and perhaps even alienating, for so many people, even for Christians who celebrate it.
As a Coptic Orthodox Christian and first generation American, my experience of Christmas was quite different from that of my peers. Santa Claus did not feature much in our house growing up, and we rarely put up a tree, but we most certainly went to church on Christmas Eve (on January 6th, not on December 24th), exchanged gifts, and spent time together as a family on Christmas day. My husband and I have carried on this simplicity of the holiday with our children, opting for a small tree, a few lights at our window, and a limited number of gifts. We tell the story of St. Nicholas when our kids ask us about Santa, and we definitely don’t do “elf on the shelf.” We prepare for Christmas during the Advent season, spend Christmas Eve in Liturgy, and spend Christmas day visiting people we know who cannot leave their homes or nursing homes.
As a Christian, the incarnation and birth of Christ are deeply significant for me, as the beginning of the story of salvation. The fact that so many non-Christians feel they are a part of the season to me is not a testament to the secularization and commercialization of Christmas, but instead to the power of what happened that night two thousand years ago:
And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:9-11, NKJV).
The joy of Christmas is a joy that belongs to everyone, rich wise men and poor shepherds, Christian and non-Christian. It is a joy for all people. I am thankful for those comments on my friend Eman’s post for reminding me of this. When the angels sang their songs of praise at Christ’s birth, they sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and goodwill towards men” (Luke 2:14). Peace and goodwill for all the earth, for all people. As a Christian, I hope that I can demonstrate that joy, peace and good will for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.
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(c) Phoebe Farag 2016