The time has arrived once more when Western Muslims face the sometimes difficult and frustrating time of the Holidays. Whether it’s navigating office Secret Santa and Christmas celebrations, or getting through those awkward family Christmas dinners and New Years Eve parties, here are some tips for making this holiday season a pleasant one.
1. Merry Christmas… or not? The choice is yours.
First and foremost, Christmas is not an Islamic holiday and every single Muslim has the right to choose whether they would like to celebrate it or not. It is a debated issue within our Islamic community and scholars, even within the same schools of thought, differ on this subject. If you do not feel comfortable partaking in the holiday, then don’t. If you do not see any harm or it contributes to your spiritual path, then celebrate. It is completely your choice. It is not required of you to give gifts, dress up, or even say “Merry Christmas” no matter what the “War on Christmas” folk say. However, as Muslims, we must always have good and kind manners. We cannot become ugly and vindictive, (Grinch-y if you will), because our neighbors usually get the day off on their holidays and we have to use vacation days for ours. The ideas of peace and love, which are emphasized this time of year, should be applied everyday, all year round.
If you do choose to partake, find the balance that works for you. Do you want to only celebrate with close friends or family who are Christian by exchanging gifts? Do you want to focus on the birth of Jesus (peace be upon him) from the Islamic perspective and spend the day studying his life? Would you rather focus on the halal secular traditions? Some scholars like Imam Khomeini used to give gifts to his Christian neighbors on Christmas in the spirit of community building and goodwill. Discuss Christmas with your family, scholars, and community members and find out what works best for you.
Whichever you choose, the “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” route, remember Allah (swt), keep your heart and intentions clear, and be kind.
2. Good relationships start with communication. Don’t be afraid of conversation.
Let me set the scene: sitting in the break room, a coworker sees you munching on one of the delicious crushed candy cane topped brownies, signing a Christmas card to your friend. She awkwardly sits next to you and says, “Can I ask you a question? I thought you were Muslim? Why are you celebrating Christmas?”
Or…sitting in the break room, a coworker asks, “Why do you always say holiday break? The break is for Christmas.”
How do you reply?
As a minority, we are constantly facing curiosity and questions. Most of the time, people are searching for explanation and understanding, not trying to attack or accuse. We should not hold their lack of knowledge against them. Working through those awkward conversations builds bridges and creates amity within relationships. Explaining your actions and providing justification is not required of anyone, but opening up about your beliefs can go a long away in tearing down misunderstandings and ignorance.
This can be most challenging when there are disagreements and the conversation becomes heated. Nobody likes to feel uncomfortable and learning how to “agree to disagree” will go a long way. No two people under any circumstances will be in agreement 100% of the time. Instead, try and focus on similarities rather than get stuck on what is different.
3. Christmas has always been about connection.
It is common knowledge even within the Christian community that Jesus (pbuh) was not born on December 25. Early church leaders made the decision to commemorate the event in winter to distance it from Easter, which is always in the spring, and to take the place of winter festivals that were common in pre-Christian Europe. By choosing the winter festival time to celebrate the birth of Jesus (pbuh), the Church succeeded in giving early Christian converts in non-Christian families the ability to celebrate with their families and not become estranged. As the centuries passed, it also helped transition the population into a completely Christian society. The ancient traditions remained but with new spiritual association.
As Muslims it is important to understand history and be its harshest critic, lest we disobey the commands in the Qur’an and repeat the mistakes of the past. But with that critical eye, we must also realize that not everyone shares our perspective. Even if we choose to not participate in actively celebrating Christmas, we should use this time to reach out to others, especially during these times of heightened Islamophobia, because the season tends to make otherwise hard hearts softer.
Since its inception, Christmas has emphasized connection, coming together, and peace. For example, in 1914 during World War I, all of the German, French, and British troops remarkably lowered their weapons in a truce for the week surrounding Christmas. Making connections with otherwise distant neighbors, reconnecting with old friends, or just being extra courteous with stubborn fellow employees are small actions anyone can do to encourage peace and harmony in our world. Not to mention, all of those things are good akhlaq.
4. Whether it’s marshmallow hot chocolate or spiced rum, it’s okay to say no!
Another scene: you open your Secret Santa gift and find a mug full of marshmallow hot chocolate packets and a gift card to Porky’s Rib Palace. What to do? You do not want to make the gift giver feel bad, but at the same time your gift is useless to you. Do you accept it and just go home and throw it away? Do you explain you cannot use it and “make a scene?”
In this specific case, it may be possible to find another coworker to trade with and just tell your Secret Santa that you cannot eat pork, which means no gelatin either. If you have that conversation, people will become educated about Islam and in the future, inshAllah, you will receive more appropriate gifts. If in the unlikely case people are offended or angry, there is a high chance that a conversation with them at another low-stress time can smooth things over. Communication is key!
If you do not feel comfortable receiving gifts at all, share that information with your friends, coworkers, and neighbors. People are usually very understanding and will honor your wishes. However, they won’t know what you want unless you tell them!
5. Our holidays matter too and celebrating Christmas doesn’t mean they don’t.
Sometimes, in the interest of fun and brotherly love we participate with our Christian friends in gift giving. We say “Merry Christmas” and bake cookies for our neighbors. Next thing we know, people at the Masjid are accusing us of shirk, bid’ah, and kufr and screaming at us to repent!
First of all, some of the aggressive behavior we encounter at our Masajid is completely contrary to Islamic manners. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) would never raise his voice, especially in anger. If we disagree with someone about their life choices and we feel the need to intervene, discussing with them in private is always the best choice.
That said, there are no schools of Islamic thought, except those farthest to the right, that outright forbid Christmas. Some schools discourage it more than others in the interest of uplifting our unique Islamic tradition. But Christmas and Eid are not contradictory. Reflecting on the prophethood of Prophet Jesus (pbuh) on Christmas is similar to pondering the prophethood of Prophet Abraham (pbuh) on Eid ul-Adha. Enjoying a candy cane on Christmas does not mean we do not enjoy baklawa on Eid.
If the loss of Islamic identity is a big concern of yours, something that I have seen done is making snacks and goodies to pass out at work or school around Eid time and explain that it is a special holiday for Muslims. Getting other people involved in our festivities could do wonders in building bridges between our different, but intersecting identities.
6. You don’t have to hide the Christmas toy catalog.
Oh no! The giant catalog with a million toys in it just arrived in the mail! If the kids see it, you’ll never hear the end of “I want this” or “I need that” or “my friend Marsha has one of those!” or “Please, please, PLEASE!!! Mommy!!!” What’s a parent to do?
Modern day Christmas is any kid’s dream come true. It has everything: beautiful decorations, new toys, candy, and desserts. The question on every parent’s mind is how can we teach our kids about moderation, charity, and love of akhira when the world around them is offering to make their every wish come true? A whole book could be written on this topic, but all the advice would boil down to one basic principle: kids do what they see. Telling a child a million times, “you don’t need that new train set, your old one is just fine,” doesn’t mean anything to them if you are chasing the newest smart phone even though your current phone is perfectly functioning. Teaching our kids about extravagance, moderation, and wasting starts with us.
Islam discourages attachment to the dunya, an ideal that all of us are perpetually struggling with. Discussing how all of this material world will eventually fade away and emphasizing that everything on earth is here only by the Mercy of Allah (swt) can help plant the seeds of love for the next world in our children. Look through the catalog with them and listen to their interests and opinions and utilize the opportunity to communicate and bond. Emphasize that no matter how many toys, games, or electronics they collect, what is most important in the sight of Allah (swt) is their faith, their character, and their behavior.
“But how can I explain all of that in the store when my kids are begging at the Christmas display for the newest toy?” you ask. Obviously, that is not the time to bring out the philosophical conversation. Instead, focus on the difference between a want and a need. As a parent it is your job to provide everything they need, but not necessarily everything they want. If you give gifts on Eid, offer to think about it for when the time arrives. If your children instead receive money for Eid or an allowance for chores, encourage them to save their money so they can buy it for themselves.
“What about Santa? I don’t want my son to accidentally spoil the fact that he’s not real to his friends at school.” When it comes to Santa, you as a parent need to decide what to tell your kids about him. However, you should understand that lying and pretending he is real sets up a pretty bleak precedent for the future when they find out he is not real and that you have been deceiving them all throughout their childhood. I would stick with the truth and explain that some of their classmates may believe he is real and that it’s best not to talk about it at all with their friends.
You should also prepare your children for the possibility that classmates might talk about Jesus (pbuh) with them. Explain that we as Muslims also believe in Jesus (pbuh) but do not believe he is the son of God. You may choose to be as detailed as you like about the concept of Allah (swt) and the Islamic perspective of Jesus (pbuh), but discussion and explanation is vital.
7. Secular celebrations do not negate spiritual beliefs and religious traditions do not mean imposition.
In the public sphere, especially in public schools, Christmas is celebrated with Santa, elves, and Jingle Bells and the religious aspects of the holiday are not directly addressed. Those within the Christian far right call this the “War on Christmas” and blame anyone not Christian for this. Sometimes we as Muslims get caught in the crossfire and end up on the receiving end of nasty accusations and angry rants. Should any unfortunate confrontation occur, as I experienced once with a particularly Scrooge-y relative, the best defense is education. All of the secular customs surrounding the holidays stem from either ancient pagan rituals or adaptations of the religious tradition.
For example, gift giving and Santa Claus himself are inspired by a saint who gave gifts to children much like Christians believe 3 wise men provided gifts to the baby Jesus (pbuh). Putting lights up, especially the star at the top of Christmas trees, symbolizes the bright star they believe appeared above Jesus (pbuh) at his birth. And even without those very obvious connections, at the heart of even the most secular celebrations is the idea of goodwill, love, and peace, all of which are very powerful and universal spiritual ideals.
And just because someone is very proud of their religion does not mean that they are trying to convert or shame anyone. Some people choose to proudly display and uphold their religious identity, just as we express our love for our Islamic celebrations, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Pride is only an issue when it passes over into arrogance or superiority, and honestly it is not anyone but Allah’s (swt) place to judge that. Your friend’s angel covered, generic Christmas card, or your neighbor’s huge front yard nativity display are probably not subtle attempts to change you. Not everything is a conspiracy.
8. It’s all right to celebrate on New Year’s – just keep it Halal!
It’s a new year, time for starting over, forgetting the past, and resolutions, right? Well, maybe. Like Christmas, you must decide for yourself what works for you and your situation. But whatever you choose, keep it Halal. Western traditions surrounding New Year’s are full of mixed gatherings, parties, drinking, and all kind of things that are problematic for a Muslim. Because it is not a religious holiday it is easier to find common ground with non-Muslim friends and family, but finding a way to celebrate with them may be difficult. If they will agree to an alcohol-free appropriate get together, that’s great! If not, it is better not to compromise your deen and begin the year off haraam.
We are lucky because as Muslims, our calendar works in a whole month for reflection, rejuvenation, and growth: Ramadhan!
9. Smile: it’s Sunnah!
So, you’ve decided what to do about Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, you’ve had those difficult but cordial conversations, and you’ve navigated the secular v.s. religious neighbors. Now, you are tired of having to work extra hard for people’s acceptance and understanding. It is exhausting having to function among people who don’t recognize their own privilege and don’t realize how frustrating being a minority is. Now what?
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Every kindly act is considered charity.” He also said: “Verily charity extinguishes the wrath of the Lord.”  As Muslims, we believe in the justice of Allah (swt) and the ever-approaching Day of Judgment, the day all of our hearts will be pounding and when we will all be brought forth with our deeds. Any good we did shall be revealed, and the same goes for all our bad. Honestly, if Allah (swt) is truly our goal, the petty squabbles of our everyday lives should matter very little to us. A spoon of patience in a time of difficulty or frustration goes much farther than a bowl of punishment later due to uncontrolled anger and wrath.
That is not to say we should roll over and accept any injustice. If a coworker begins lashing out at you because you decline the mulled wine or refuse to decorate your cubicle for Christmas, stand up for yourself! But always remember that your words are recorded so keep your manners in check and always be the first to extend your hand in friendship. In all reality, our struggles are nothing compared the struggles of the Prophets (peace be upon them all) and if they can smile and be patient in the face of their struggles, surely we can too.
10. Remember the reason for the season.
It is common to hear that phrase throughout Christmas time, and as Muslims we are in the extremely fortunate and unique position of having a very similar opinion about the extraordinary man who is Jesus (pbuh). While other religious traditions see him as merely a holy man or even a heretic, Islam sees him not only as a miraculously conceived Prophet, but a Messenger. His place within our faith is so lofty that we believe, as the Christians do, that he will return in the end times and will help usher in an era of victory and peace.
The Qur’an relates the incredible story of the birth of Jesus (pbuh) and the inspiring strength, piety, and faith of his blessed mother, Mary. She was estranged from her people because of her unwavering belief in Allah (swt) when He sent to her an angel in the form of a man. She sought refuge in Him and the angel calmed her and told her he had been sent from the Lord and that she had been chosen above other women and would have a son. After replying that it was impossible because no man had touched her, the angel explained that Allah (swt) does as He wishes and simply says “Be” and it is. Mary did not go amongst the people during her pregnancy, and after she delivered the child, she was told to go back to them but not to utter a word. When the people accused and insulted her, she gestured toward her small infant, the baby Jesus (pbuh), who spoke to the people and maintained his mother’s innocence and proclaimed his Prophethood.
The Islamic account differs from the Christian belief of Mary and Joseph traversing the land and arriving in Bethlehem only to be forced to deliver the baby in a lowly stable, but ultimately, the similarity of the virgin conception and Jesus’s (pbuh) importance to humanity is key in bringing us together. At our core, all people are submitted to the Lord of all beings and most of us are trying our best to find the path to reach Him. The inspiration of Mary’s unshakeable faith in the face of adversity, the miracle of Jesus’s (pbuh) birth, and the extraordinary man that he was are enough to bridge cultural, political, and even religious differences.
In an effort to bring my mixed family together, we celebrate Christmas with my close family. We begin Christmas morning reading both from the Bible and Qur’an in an effort to remember the Messiah who is Jesus (pbuh). We then open presents together and share in the goodness that is maintaining ties and respecting parents. The rest of the day is filled with halal turkey, silly Christmas cartoons, and joyful conversation. This is how we choose to celebrate the holidays. It took us years for everyone in the family to come together and work to make the celebration as joyful and peaceful as every person hopes it will be. Our way is not what everyone would choose. It is up to you to carve your own path and do your best with what has been provided for you.
So from my family to yours, peace be upon you and Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, whichever you choose.
 Al-Khisal, p. 134. No. 145
 Ibid. no. 16114
 The Holy Qur’an, 79:8
 The Holy Qur’an, 99:6-8
 The Holy Qur’an, 3:43
 The Holy Qur’an, 19:16-33