IT is that time of the year again? Wasn’t it 20 or 30 years ago that we dealt with this issue and thought it was over and done with?
“Do we celebrate Christmas, Tuk Mama?” asked my 4-year-old grandson, Iskandar, as we navigated our way along Oxford Street dripping with Christmas lights as songs of the Christmassy nature filled the air.
He had just dropped a £1 coin in the hat of a group of buskers playing We Wish You a Merry Christmas!
“Do we celebrate Christmas?” That was the question his father and his siblings asked more than 30 years ago as we drove past rows and rows of houses with all kinds of Christmas decorations.
He and his siblings took to playing who spotted the most Christmas tree decorations in the windows during long and boring car rides.
As Muslims living in a host country that is predominantly Christian, we are aware that this is a delicate issue that we have to deal with sensibly especially when faced with four pairs of wide-eyed innocence looking at you for an answer.
We, as parents and now grandparents, realise that they need to learn and understand about Christmas and about how the institutions and organisation of British life have been shaped by Britain’s Christian heritage.
We also realised that it is our duty, too, to provide them with the basic knowledge and understanding of our own religion. But how do we strike a balance in managing this?
Not too long ago, when we received a letter from Iskandar’s nursery about a Christmas play, needless to say, there was some hesitation. It was deja vu all over again.
His uncle at his age was allowed to participate in a nativity play. This was at a time when there was a lot of hoo-ha about Muslim children’s participation in Nativity plays in school. Some Muslim parents chose to take their children out and some schools chose to downplay their celebrations.
We decided to allow our youngest to take part after he pleaded that his role was only as the hind legs of a cow.
Soon and true enough, he did his part and moved on as he acquired more and more understanding of his own religion and celebrations.
He and his siblings had done that posing bit on Santa’s lap in his grotto and even had pictures to show for it. And that is just about it.
So, Iskandar in his elf outfit was allowed to participate in the Christmas concert, the same way his non-Muslim friends enjoyed and participated in the Eid, Divali and Chinese New Year celebrations before this.
They all started learning about each others’ religions and celebrations and hopefully go on to celebrate these differences and diversity.
With the religious guidance that he is getting at home and also at his weekly religious classes at SOFA College, Iskandar is already at ease reciting the Selawat Nabi (praises to Prophet Muhammad) as he perched comfortably on his Tuk Wan’s shoulders walking down the streets of London.
Once in a while, he belts out, Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle all the way.
We try not to make too much fuss about this but we have to make sure that in making him understand, we have to emphasise common ground that Muslims and Christian share. We also need to be clear about the differences in a way that a 4-year-old could handle and digest.
As we entered our 39th year living in this host country, we hope that our own experience arriving here as newlyweds, and then raising four children and now managing a grandson, will put us in a better position to guide our extended family living life as Muslims in a non-Muslim country.
I remember our first Christmas dinner with an English family. Although we were made to wear silly hats and exchange presents, I never did interpret this as a religious occasion. I suspect neither did our hosts.
To them, it was just an excuse to eat and drink and watch repeats on television.
Having been educated in a convent during a huge part of my life, a simple celebration with friends from a different faith did nothing to dent mine.
In fact, this celebration with our English friends continued every year until they moved away. We were considered family.
At work, there was no escaping Christmas parties although no one would invite us to their homes as Christmas is very much a family affair.
Actually, my first exposure to Christmas was in Malaysia. During Christmas breaks, we would enjoy holidays in Port Dickson and Uncle Dorai would dress up as Santa Claus while Aunty Tata made her delicious capati and lamb curry. That was Christmas — and we were all given presents.
Those were the days when it was still all right to wish each other Merry Christmas. Now, it seems, we have to watch what we are wishing and how we are saying it.
Just the other day during one of our discussions, a friend asked about joining in Christmas parties and giving and accepting presents.
One friend quipped that if we knew there was going to be dance and drinks, then you shouldn’t go.
But what does that do to friendships and working relationships? Most non-Muslims do understand that Muslims do not drink and they do provide alternatives. I personally do not see any harm in just being there to join in the spirit of friendship and promoting camaraderie.
The same goes for giving presents and cards. Do we shy away and disappear and pretend Christmas doesn’t exist while we actually live among those who celebrate it? What excuse do we have when we are accused of not being able to integrate?
Thirty-nine years living in this host country with all their Christmassy trimmings has done nothing to dent my faith. If anything, it serves to strengthen my belief in the faith that I was born in. And with that, I hope that I am able to bring up my family, the way I was brought up with my beliefs.
As Iskandar takes his strides in life as a Muslim child in this very non-Muslim environment, it is our duty to see that he does that in a manner that every Muslim parent would be proud of.
And for that too, I say, InsyaAllah.