On Muslims, Christmas and other holidays

A picture of a Christmas tree decorated in large baubles and other decorations in the ornate lobby of a hotel; four storeys can be seen behind it.The other day someone posted an image to Facebook of two Christmas displays accompanied by a slogan to the effect that Muslims aren’t banning Christmas — this is how they do it in Malaysia and Abu Dhabi. The latter was in a shopping mall and there was a huge Christmas tree. Muslims looking to get Christmas ‘banned’ or it being ‘banned’ by various local authorities to avoid displeasing Muslims has been a staple of the British right-wing mid-market press for years, and usually on closer examination the thing that was being called something other than Christmas was not Christmas at all. The Daily Mail, which parroted the ‘Winterval’ claim numerous times, apologised after the truth about that was exposed during the Leveson inquiry, but more recently this was one of the asinine tweets of the US President, Donald Trump (who, as a landlord in the early 1980s, forbade his tenants from putting Christmas decorations in the lobby in an attempt to force them out): “People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!”.

As a Muslim, the last thing I’d want to do is stop anyone from enjoying their Christmas, and I’ve never seen Muslims trying to do any such thing in this country. I’ve also not seen Muslims challenge laws based around Britain’s Christian traditions such as Sunday trading laws (which include a requirement for large shops to close altogether on Easter Sunday) or the lack of public transport on Christmas Day. A few years ago I was on a phone-in on a London radio station after the Daily Express (or Daily Spew as I call it) claimed that Muslims were forcing everyone else to stop eating because it was Ramadan, but I thought it wasn’t unreasonable to expect people working in an area where there were a lot of Muslims not to stuff their faces in front of them during a meeting, for example, but that’s not the same as expecting them to fast or not to eat anywhere Muslims might see them, which I do not believe anyone was suggesting.

It’s not Muslims pressuring anyone else not to celebrate or enjoy Christmas; it’s Muslims who are being pressured to take part in it despite the fact that there is no history of Muslims celebrating it any time before the Muslim lands were colonised by Christians and Muslims became immigrants in predominantly if not officially Christian countries. Depressingly, a lot of the pressure is coming from Muslims: there are comparisons with the mawlid (birthday celebrations) for the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and with the incident in which he observed Jews celebrating God’s saving the prophet Moses (peace be upon him) from the Pharaoh on his arrival in Medina, and thereafter fasted the day of Ashura and ordered the Muslims to do the same, although it did not remain a compulsory fast (you can read about this here). There are two important differences between these celebrations and Christmas, however. One is that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) fasted for Ashura and is not recorded as having marked Christmas at all or as instructing the Muslims to do this. The second is that, although the Mawlid as we know it is a bid’ah or innovation, it is at least of Muslim origin and many great scholars and shaikhs have written poems celebrating the birth of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) which are recited at gatherings not only in Rabi’ al-Awwal but throughout the year. (It is notable that such gatherings take place every Monday in many Muslim communities, particularly in Yemen and around the Indian Ocean where the scholars of Hadramaut hold sway.)

The romanticisation of Christmas is fairly recent; until the 19th century it was purely a religious holiday and in some Christian communities including some pioneer communities in what is now the USA, it has been banned. Charles Dickens made a villain of a mean boss who would not let his worker (with a disabled son) have a day off with his family for Christmas in A Christmas Carol and anyone who spoils others’ Christmas joy since is compared to Ebeneezer Scrooge. Popular stereotypes of Christmas are dominated by films set in snowy New York and Chicago and by songs by North American singers such as Bing Crosby; the images are of snow and evergreen trees and even in the UK, where heavy snows are rare especially in the south, we think we should have a “white Christmas” even though they are not normal here and have not been in living memory.

So, the stereotypes are all American and the customs such as Christmas trees and present-giving on the 25th and 26th of December are all reflective of the customs in the USA and to a lesser extent the UK (the customs differ in other parts of Europe). The roots of Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ (peace be upon him) are largely forgotten in all the pageantry about Santa Claus (a character based on a Christian saint), reindeer and sacks full of presents which parents buy for their children at great expense but pretend are brought down the chimney from the North Pole. The fact that it’s all around us makes it difficult for people who aren’t Christians to avoid getting involved in, especially when some companies put on Christmas dinners and other functions and some actually require staff to attend, schools have Christmas plays and parties and shops play Christmas music non-stop. So Muslims tell each other that as the festival is not in itself polytheistic and we do not fundamentally disagree on the facts behind the festival itself (as with Easter), it’s OK for us to involve ourselves in it.

And it’s wrong. I don’t believe that “it’s not shirk” (polytheism/idolatry) is the real reason some Muslims think it’s nice to get into Christmas. It’s just that it’s part of the dominant culture, and they feel the need to prove to others that “we can do Christmas just like you do, we’re not spoilsports”. If the dominant culture were Chinese or Hindu then some Muslims would find an excuse to get involved in Diwali or Chinese New Year too, and cut out the actual worship parts (in the case of Diwali especially) and talk about the ‘values’ or ‘virtues’ it represents or something. Yet in the Muslim world, both in countries with large Christian minorities and those without, as long as there is significant exposure to western culture, we see Muslims in parts of the world where it really doesn’t snow (unlike in Africa!) putting on Christmas just like it’s New York and putting Christmas trees (or structures meant to look like them) which do not grow there.

I draw a distinction between Muslims with non-Muslim families taking part in some of the social aspects of Christmas, such as family gatherings and present-giving, and Muslims who were brought up Muslim and for whom Christmas is no tradition getting involved in it when not forced to at all. I don’t condemn the first but the second is indefensible. It is not a sign of warm-heartedness or good-neighbourliness to adopt part of the dominant culture when it’s against your religion, but of subservience. They, after all, are not rushing to join us for either of our Eids, or the Mawlid, and there are plenty of Scrooges who won’t let their Muslim employees have those days off.

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  • George Carty

    I thought the prominence of snow in popular Christmas imagery owed more to Germany (thanks to Prince Albert, who was responsible for introducing most of the current Christmas traditions to the UK during the 19th century) than to North America…

  • James Henry

    The lack of public transport on Christmas Day is inspired by commercial rather than religious considerations. Paying Bank Holiday rates of pay does not appeal to transport suppliers. Until a comparatively few years ago there was public transport and postal deliveries took place on Christmas Day. Many shops were open on Christmas morning. Santa Claus has been conflated with the older English figure of Father Christmas, who was connected with pagan Yule celebrations. One of the problems with hi-jacking pagan customs is that the paganism hangs around.

  • You’re right; there used to be public transport on Christmas Day in London and it ceased because it wasn’t used enough because more and more people had cars, much as it might be mistaken now for a policy decision based on religion, or to enable staff to have their ‘sacred’ day off. My point is that I don’t see Muslims calling for this to be changed.