Recurring respiratory ailments at Christmas time is now being attributed to a mould on Christmas trees! What a good reason for you not to have one in the house if you are tempted, fearing it may be a step too near assimilation into western ways. But you can always drape the coloured lights outside on a tree, as many people across Europe do and I must admit it does cheer things up at a time of the year in England when it is overbearingly grey. But in the multicultural Britain of 2011, this time of year always seems to highlight religious differences. But this really shouldn’t be the case as I see it as an opportunity for some smart bridge building.
Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a highly regarded and very popular scholar from Pakistan makes out a very good case for Muslims celebrating Christmas as a mawlid for the Prophet Isa, alayhi salaam, as this negates the Christian assertion of his godhood in that he was born and created as a man. In fact Dr Muhammad advocates a mawlid for any prophet or friend of God. He adds that in fact every jumu’a prayer is a mawlid for the prophet Adam as this was the day of the week he was created. After all, muslims celebrate Ashura on the 10th of Muharram, which originally was a Jewish festival remembering the day when Moses defeated the Pharaoh. Had Islam originated in a predominately Christian culture no doubt we might have absorbed some Christian festivals.
As someone who grew up around all the trimmings of a typically 1950s English Christmas I would say there were plusses and minuses. It was magical, a time of presents, carol singing, a large family gathering but also with a good measure of over indulgence and eventually sibling quarrelling, some indigestion and usually a frantic mother left for too long in the kitchen. As my parents were Quakers there was no heavy drinking; a bit of sherry in the morning and cider at lunch was as far as it went. It jollied things along. The typical Victorian style family Christmas in other words.
Now jump ahead 50-60 years and we have a quite different landscape where few people actually know what they are celebrating anymore and a time of great unhappiness for some. Participation in religious Christian worship is much much less than it ever used to be, with open atheism quite a common thing in what has become, in the UK, a quite secular materialistic society. No-one can deny that Christmas has become a massive commercialised binge on which it seems the fate of the nation’s economy now hangs! But on the edge of it all are families of other faiths testing the waters, wondering if Christmas means anything to them.
People like myself, who came into Islam in the early 1970s in London, were faced with quite a brutal ‘reconditioning’ by our first teacher. Christmas was presented to us as the ultimate ritual of godlessness, the usurping of the pagan festival of the birth of the Roman sun god, by the Catholic church many centuries ago. So we had to be reprogrammed. Our group of young muslims at the time were forbidden to visit their families and instead we all went into a three day retreat in our zawiyya. Our zeal was unmatched anywhere and we really thought highly of ourselves and how revolutionary we were. I’m not saying a bit of re-programming was not necessary after the crazy decade of the 1960s but in hindsight I do think the method was harsh and misguided. Our then teacher was not a family man and he considered all of our character faults came from our various family upbringings – a fashionable theory of the time promoted by psychiatrists like RD Laing – and that Christmas was central to the illness. It was curious, as our venerable Shaykh in Morocco had stated quite clearly to us fledgling muslims, that we had two Imams: Muhammad and Jesus, on them both be eternal blessings and peace, which suggested a degree of tolerance of our Christian past and some respect for our parents, the family being by tradition, under the Throne of God and non-negotiable.
After that social experiment all broke up in the early 1980s we managed, as a family, to find a much more natural way, as muslims, to deal with Christmas. We would cook a turkey, as this was the only time of the year you could buy halal birds, and invite friends around for a big meal. At Christmas in the UK the whole world closed down around you and there was little else to do. So this became a yearly event and we have had it most years for over 20 years now. Often there were travellers passing through, Bosnian refugees, families who weren’t celebrating anything and just people we knew who were living alone. The English winter is very depressing at the best of times and people need uplift … good company, pretty lights and good food – a little bit of joy. But the intention was everything. We were certainly not lurching back into the ways of the past. On one occasion in the 1980s I had seen fairy lights at a Pakistani mawlid in the north of England and realised then that it was time to reclaim these things for ourselves. So now at Eid time and Mawlids, out come the fairy lights (but no trees!). We just needed to remember how to enjoy ourselves and climb out from under the mantle of puritanism that some new muslims seem to embrace.
These Christmas lunches we continue down in Spain where we now live, even though Navidad, as it is called, is not a big deal here. Jan 6th, Tres Reyes (three kings) is always a bigger festival. Even though we don’t have the dark northern winters (quite the opposite in fact) it still makes a lot of sense as people need an excuse to come together at the nadir point of the solar year. I know that in muslim communities there is a lot of resistance to Christmas, but I just wonder if we have to rethink it all and have a change of heart.