Can Muslims embrace Christmas as part of the cultural landscape of Britain, even if they don’t connect fully with its religious significance?
It’s that time of year again. The cold weather, snow and even the recession don’t appear to hold back shoppers. To many, and not without some cause, Christmas has now come to signal the worst of consumerism, rushing to buy presents, spending money that you don’t have (especially this year), and so on. One fears for Eid in this regard. But while being English means that cynicism is bred into us, I am still the eternal optimist. Perhaps naively, I prefer to see the positive; so this is definitely not the musings of a grumpy old man on this time of year.
In fact, I’m something of a closet Christmas lover, and have been so for many years. I know other Muslims are too…so come out of the closet! I grew up in a family that occasionally had Christmas trees and presents, even though our family didn’t ‘believe’ in Christmas in the same way as Christian friends. Many Christmas carols and hymns, though again not having the same religious significance, produce warm and cosy feelings. To make matters more complicated, and to add to the joys of the day it’s also my birthday – flanked by Jinnah and Jesus (and Newton if you use the Julian Calendar) I stand in good company.
OK, I know that 25th December isn’t actually the date of birth of Jesus, and that it heavily draws on pagan, pre-Christian festivals, nor are the tree, holly, snow, mince-pies, presents, even Santa (honest!), rooted in Christianity. But take all these things away and something powerful still remains – the simple and touching story of the triumph of humility over oppression, of love and sacrifice over greed and selfishness. Christmas is not the most religious time of year for devout Christians, for whom Easter arguably has greater significance, but the coming together of people, travelling to be with their loved ones, taking time out, thinking about others, exchanging gifts, is profoundly spiritual. It’s the one time in the year when we truly institutionalise thinking about others.
In recent years some have argued for Christmas to be replaced by ‘Winterval’ – this has certainly not come from other religious minorities, rather perhaps misplaced political correctness. In fact, Christmas was banned for some time in the 17th Century by Puritans in England and in America, but for altogether different reasons. I think most non-Christians admire and respect the display of care and religious sentiment during this time, and of course…love the sales. (And on a serious note, I hope that’s not an appropriation of Christmas, rather a heartfelt gesture of how much we owe to Christianity, even as people of another faith, or no faith).
Some of my Christian friends worry about the way Christmas is celebrated and – and I can understand that anxiety. For a non-Christian, I think the message of Christmas, beyond its specifically Christian relevance, is also a cultural feature of the British landscape, like Remembrance Sunday, Bonfire Night, the Proms, and of course, X Factor. And on that cultural level we can, and should, embrace the spirit of Christmas. Unwrapping another pair of socks, watching the Snowman, eating too much and sleeping through the Queen’s speech – but there’s more to it than that. It is that eternal message – of humility, love and sacrifice – that from a lowly beginning you can rise to great heights, that we desperately need to join hands and work together to realise that tiding of ‘peace on earth, and good will to all…’