Omer Aziz is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic and elsewhere. He served most recently as a policy adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
When I was growing up in Scarborough, there was always one time of year that was bound to cause tension and arguments in my family. My parents had come to Canada from Pakistan, but my brothers and I were born here, children of both East and West. My father was a secular man who had little time for religion. For my mother, Islam was our way of life. We were one of countless immigrant families living in the Toronto suburb, with all the anxieties of a colonial people, straddling two cultures, two worlds, our existence teetering on an East-West axis that could tip at any moment. And every December, as Christmas approached, this axis did tip, and in our house there began a clash of civilizations.
One year, my father said he wanted to put up a Christmas tree. “Jesus is our prophet, too, and we should celebrate his birthday,” he said, making a theological argument rather than a secular one. It was true: As Muslims, we accepted the prophethood of Jesus – Isa in Arabic – and were taught to revere him.
(Islam is the only major religion in the world other than Christianity that recognizes Jesus’s mission, and that goes for all 1.6 billion Muslims. And the case is actually stronger than my father put it: The Koran refers to Jesus directly and indirectly in at least 93 verses, making him the most-mentioned person in Islam’s holy book. He is called the “Word of God,” the “Messiah” and, in several instances, “the Christ.”)
But my mother was flatly opposed. There would be no Christmas tree because Christmas was a Christian holiday. We ought to wish our fellow Canadians a “Merry Christmas” out of respect, but we should not participate in the ritual celebrations. Look at Jews – they didn’t celebrate Christmas, either. They preserved their own traditions, and we Muslims should do that as well.
It was an argument that would repeat itself every December, provoked by my father’s annual threat to bring home a Christmas tree and ending with a feud over culture and ownership. A chill would descend over our family life. The Christmas tree was the red line – symbolic, like the tree’s pagan, Germanic origins, of a European past that was not ours. We were to be without Christmas.
It was a private loss I carried with me. I always loved Christmas as a boy. In mid-December, I would wake up in excitement and trek through the snow to school because we would be singing Christmas carols that day. The band would be playing. There would be decorations. The adults would be less miserable. Christmas is every child’s fantasy come true – from the jolly, chubby grandfather who hands out presents to the sweets and chocolates. Even the flatness and emptiness of Scarborough was enlivened as the holiday approached, as red and green lights shone outside homes, as lamp posts and malls and trees were brightly decked out, as snow fell on houses and lawns and roads, shielding the borough under a white blanket. A spirit of joyousness took over that joyless place.
One December, our neighbours put up the full nativity scene. The next year, they had a sign that read, “Keep the Christ in Christmas” – italics in the original. My father, ever the eager immigrant, took this as a challenge and vowed to put up lights outside. He even – gasp – brought home a Christmas tree. It was no taller than a fire hydrant, was made of cheap plastic and looked more like a small plant. But this was a massive transgression. My mother was furious. If we started celebrating Christmas like Christians, the children would completely lose any connection to our own culture. We would become like the Angrez – become white. Eventually, my father relented.
This was not her fear alone. In Scarborough, many immigrant families shared the same concerns about the second generation – that we would throw away our families' sacrifices and ditch the culture and ways of our parents to pursue an abject individualism, tethered no more to our heritage. Your soil was one thing; your blood, another. You were born to a family, that family was connected to tradition and those traditions were to be preserved. Like many families here, we felt we were an old people, linked to our own hallowed ways, with a history that should not be so casually discarded. Christmas was sacrificed to maintain the centrality of our own customs. Latent within us were the minority’s insecurity and dread of cultural extinction. It was a deeply rooted fear.
To be without Christmas as a child was to live in a void of darkness. My brother and I wrote to Santa Claus at school, and he wrote back, but we still had the solitary awareness – never to be expressed – that Santa did not come here and only went to the homes of other children. There is a loneliness that Christmas engenders, and I suspect this is true even for many children who celebrate the holiday. When I look back on those early Christmas memories now, there is a kind of erasure, an emotional blackness, an absence of feeling. Nothing positive had been celebrated on this holiday. And so nothing positive had been remembered.
We still had our own organic traditions on Christmas Eve – every family does. Old Moses and Jesus movies would play in our living room, and my mother and grandmother would watch with enraptured faces. I always found those films utterly boring.
As an adult, and a child of East and West, I appreciate and celebrate the holiday of Christmas in my own, non-sectarian way. Beyond the merriment of families and the happiness of children – good enough reasons for any celebration – what Christmas represents for me is a spiritual renewal, a reawakening of my class consciousness, which has been eroded through the labours of the year and the focus on the self that these labours entail. Because at the heart of Christmas as I see it is a concern for those less fortunate – not as a political project, but as a moral one, caring for “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” as the Bible puts it. This is the Christian idea embodied, as it is the Islamic one – as it is the idea of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human being.
The theological or religious elements of Christmas matter little to me. I think the example set by the Palestinian Jew named Yeshua (or Jesus) is a morally worthy one. But Christmas has always been more about class than religion. Jesus himself was a lower-class Jewish man who put the poor at the front of his gospel. His following got him crucified for sedition. The early celebrations of Christmas were raucous occasions where the social order was turned upside down – a time when the poor would go into the homes of the rich and demand a meal. Like the Christ, Christmas was perceived as a threat to the established order, and the holiday was banned for a time in Britain and the United States.
It was not until the 1800s that Christmas was reinvented and popularized as a national holiday and took on its modern form. This was largely due to the efforts of two writers: Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Irving invoked a Christmas feast where a wealthy landowner broke bread with peasants and farmers, harkening back to an idyllic English manor-house Christmas that had largely faded. The feast symbolized the deliberate dissolution of class lines, suspending the rigid social laws that ordinarily governed life in the 19th century. The public was taken with the scene and began recreating it in real life. Dickens took this project further. In A Christmas Carol, the most famous writer in the English language brought Christmas down to the working-class streets of London, telling the story of an elderly miser and employer who transforms into a generous citizen through the spirit of the holiday. Modern Christmas, with its emancipatory and egalitarian spirit, is a literary invention, dreamed up by socially conscious writers whose societies, like ours, had produced great material wealth but had become spiritually famished. “In the depth of winter,” Irving wrote, “when nature lies despoiled of every charm and wrapped in her shroud of shielded snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources.”
Perhaps because of my childhood experiences, front of mind around Christmas are those people for whom the very idea of celebration must seem a cruel joke; people whose lives have cratered and for whom faith is the final lifeline. I think of the children of Syria and Yemen, those born to man-made atrocities and man’s instinct to violence. I think of the patients at Toronto’s Sick Kids and CAMH who might be suffering alone over Christmas. Of all the people who lost someone dear to them this year and for whom Christmas will mark a tragic absence, the first of many heartbreaks to come every December. I think of the homeless and under-housed and of the military women and men not at home, whose sacrifices are connected to my security. I think of my 87-year-old grandmother, fighting in our home to stay alive. I think of my father and mother, the old quarrels now quaint, their aging bodies and whitening hair reminding me that time is passing and we are all headed in the same direction. I think about getting outside this tormenting “I.”
But Christmas is here, and there will be food and family and drink – perhaps even a Christmas tree. Despite, or because of, my Muslim roots, I plan to always make this holiday part of my life, because little miracles are prone to happen around Christmas.
One such remarkable thing happened just the other day. An Arab friend’s cousin, visiting from Saudi Arabia and speaking almost no English, was so bewitched by the lights on the houses around him that he excitedly decorated my friend’s entire house. He was exhaustive, putting fake snow on the bushes, setting up a fake Christmas tree with lights – outside the house. He even put a giant stuffed dinosaur on the porch, just to be extra festive. The house is now the brightest on the street and looks like something out of a Wes Anderson film. Our visitor did not know the precise reasons people celebrate Christmas; public celebrations of the holiday are officially banned in Saudi Arabia. Nor does he need to know, because each person naturally reconstitutes Christmas in their own image.
I tried to provoke him by pointing out we were Muslims. But he would have none of it. “OK, for you, no Christmas,” he said dismissively. Then he pointed to the ground. “Here is Christmas.” His zeal was like that of a convert, and was one I shared. And as the holiday beckoned and the temperature fell and people rushed to be with their families, it was the Christmas spirit that brightened us – the private moments soon to be shared, the food and stories to be enjoyed, the quiet acts of compassion and charity, the ennobling of the soul that could happen as the darkness receded with the solstice, and light was reborn.