Old habits truly do die hard. Each year I find myself singing along with the endless stream of Christmas carols played in malls during the holiday season. I can only imagine what the other shoppers think of this off-key, middle-aged hijabi , who knows the lyrics to Silent Night, The Little Drummer Boy, and Jingle Bells by heart. In my defence, even the most cautious American converts find it difficult to escape the long tentacles of the Christmas season.
Christmas falls on December 25th in the United States and commemorates the birth of ‘Isa (AS). Foremost among the traditions is the giving of gifts. When I was young, advertising for Christmas began after Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November). Eventually, stores started advertising before Thanksgiving, and now Christmas displays are up by Halloween at the end of October. There is even “Christmas in July” to encourage more shopping. Unmercifully, Christmas shopping does not end on December 25th. There are the “after-Christmas sales”, which run right up to New Year’s Day or longer.
Christmas is arguably the most important American holiday but that, is by no means it. Moving along the Gregorian calendar, one encounters: New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – and this list is not complete. Finding the social space to celebrate the Islamic holidays in a country with a lot of holiday background noise requires some effort. The vast majority of Americans know nothing about the Islamic holidays. The month of Ramadhan and the ‘Eids are just ordinary days. Everyone eats, works, and attends school as normal. Muslims must work around this lack of knowledge. For example, many Muslims attend the earliest ‘Eid prayers if unable to take time off from work or school. Similarly, ‘Eid celebrations may have to wait until the weekend if ‘Eid falls on a weekday.
Recently I asked some sisters, converts and others, whose relatives live overseas, to tell me how they celebrate the Islamic holidays here. Some common themes emerged.
Celebrating Islamic holidays in a non-Muslim country can be lonely. Muslim immigrants miss their families and friends.
It can be lonely sometimes especially when you celebrated it with your family and now you live in different countries. (Nasreen)
Converts may go from celebrating more than ten holidays during the year with their non-Muslim families and friends to celebrating none. Some avoid asking their relatives to celebrate with them, fearing that they will have to reciprocate:
…I believe that if I bring it up with my family to celebrate it with us, they would. The only thing is that if we want something from them, then they will be expecting something from us. Also, they will feel if they can celebrate our holiday then we should celebrate theirs or else they will resent us. Therefore, we just do our own thing. Of course, I will not deny that sometimes I do cry because I feel lonely, but then I remind myself that Allah (SWT) does not put any burden on you that you cannot handle. It is pretty lonely when you and your husband are the only Muslims. (Anisah)
Several sisters report that their non-Muslim parents do not give any ‘Eid gifts or cards to their children, while others report that their parents occasionally remember.
Sometimes [non-Muslim relatives] will say “Happy ‘Eid”, usually as part of another phone call… Yes, they give gifts sometimes. The time of receiving the gifts doesn’t always coincide with ‘Eid, although they are sometimes called ‘Eid gifts. (Elizabeth).
Maintaining and establishing traditions
Many Muslim immigrants try to maintain the traditions of their birth country and transmit them to their children living here.
Undoubtedly, it’s a challenge to keep the culture going, since we’re the only ones in the family living abroad, but we find ways to be as creative as possible to emulate the spirit and culture of celebrating both ‘Eids similar to the home country. It’s essential for our children to learn and experience the culture that their parents grew up in as part of acknowledging their identity and heritage. (Suriati)
It is not always easy to maintain traditions. Many Muslims remember sheep and goats roaming their neighbourhood in preparation for ‘Eid al-Adha. Some kept sheep in their bathroom and slaughtered them in their backyard. Laws in the United States, especially in urban areas, often restrict which animals can be kept and where they can be slaughtered. Performing the sacrifice oneself is not always easy here, which results in many Muslims paying for an organisation to do the slaughter and distribute the meat, thus foregoing the main ritual of the holiday.
Converts face a different problem. They have no traditions and seek to establish their own.
We’ve tried hard to establish our own rituals around ‘Eid and Ramadhan. My favourite memories of Christmas growing up, are the family traditions that we had and I know that’s what my kids need too. We have banners that we’ve sewn together and other decorations (both homemade and store bought) that we put up around the house. Insha Allah, I’m hoping that these small things that we do every year will build upon themselves. (Laura)
…I do my best to make ‘Eids really fun. I always bake crescent cookies so they are associated with the holiday. I usually put up blue and gold decorations (lights, stars, moons) … But, the big deal for ‘Eid in our house is the morning treasure hunt. I cut stars and moons out of blue paper and write silly rhyming clues. Each clue leads to a small gift with another clue attached. (Tracey)
The surrogate family
Many converts and Muslim immigrants celebrate the Islamic holidays with a surrogate family, often comprised of others similarly situated.
For ‘Eid al-Fitr, we sometimes (when able by taking time off from work) go to the ‘Eid prayer and then go and have breakfast with some other families. We may visit their homes that day (again, if we’re off from work). With ‘Eid al-Adha, the husbands will usually slaughter a sheep, and then the women will sit together and maybe make some dishes with the meat or organs and then we will just eat some food and drink coffee or tea and just have a very nice day. (Barbara)
Our friends are like family, so I don’t think my children are necessarily missing out on warm holiday memories because we socialise a lot during that time. (Danette)
Creating new “familial” relationships is reminiscent of the Prophetic period. The Muhajireen left their families and everything they knew when they made the Hijra for the sake of Allah (SWT). Until they were more established in Madinah, the Prophet (SAW) paired each Muhajireen with an Ansar. The ummah fulfilled the role of family, and the same is true for many Muslims today. Anisa expresses what many of us feel: Insha Allah, my daughters will have it better when they marry and have kids. At least they will have each other and whoever they marry will add to the family gathering.
Building up a community and traditions takes time, but it will happen. Our children will have it easier as our numbers increase and more Islamic institutions are established. And I doubt that my grandchildren will hear their hijab-wearing mothers humming Christmas carols in shopping malls – insha Allah!
J. Samia Mair is the author of two children’s books, Amira’s Totally Chocolate World, and The Perfect Gift published by The Islamic Foundation. She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals and elsewhere.