Most of the time, I write about the Quran, not Muslims. Today, I want to highlight someone who presents on Muslims. On Slate’s Youtube channel, an American born Muslim named Aymann Ismail created a series of videos recording the perspectives and experiences of Muslims who are living and transitioning/growing up in the western world. Though I have no real authority to designate anyone’s perspective as “normative Islamic belief,” I think it’s safe to categorize Ismail as a liberal outlier. Given the season, and the freshness of Maryam in our minds, I thought it would be nice to share Ismail’s video on the inclusion of Muslims in Christmas, and the inclusion of Christmas in Muslim households.
This video charmed me, as I found it cute to watch the young couple figuring out how to add a Christmas tree to their household. I rather wanted to jump through the video and brainstorm with them the possibilities. Like, “don’t fret the stars, the Quran is full of ayat describing the stars as signs, just contextualize the stars with those.” Or “how about decorating a palm tree? In the Quran, Jesus is born under a date palm! Decorate a palm and put your presents under it, then eat lots of dates.” It’s the silly kind of meddling of someone who enjoys thinking up alternate realities and playing out their implications. Yet there is something fascinating about this process, for it’s possible that we are seeing an old history being played out in a new telling.
Historically speaking, there are lots of theories concerning where the exact holiday of “Christmas” came from. Many cultures in the world celebrate some kind of feasting or ritual event in or around winter solstice. Influential to early Christianity would have been the Roman Saturnalia, and then later to Western Christianity the various Yuletide customs of the Germanic tribes. Was Christmas originally a deliberate rebranding of the pagan celebrations? Perhaps. There is evidence that Jesus’s birth had been traditionally calculated around this time of year already, and I’d recommend that you enjoy yet another excellent video by Andrew Henry for thoughts on this. You could joke in all seriousness that there is some drive in humans to celebrate during the darkest time of year with a party, and that in the end any excuse –especially any religious one– will be latched onto for that purpose. Many of our Christmas totems are products of syncretism, whether that was Christianity inserting itself into someone else’s holidays or other holidays bleeding through the conversion process to become part of Christianity. While we might look at church history and imagine some kind of top-down dictation of religious culture, we should never underestimate the power of popular imagination to take any idea and transform it to serve their own demands. Martin Luther tried using the Christmas narrative to tamp out St. Nicholas’s day of veneration. He put forward that the Christ Child, die Christkindl, as the greatest gift to all mankind, was the one giving out gifts to the children. The populace took hold of this idea, through it the Christkindl evolved, and… oh dear…
So maybe it has been a losing battle to imbue lavish partying with religious significance. Syncretism flows two ways, and now the totems and rituals that escaped into our religious culture are escaping out into broader capitalism. As said by one of Ismail’s friends, “It’s not Muslims celebrating [Christmas] that made it devoid from Christianity. It’s, like, Hallmark and all these companies and Target and everyone that commercialized it like crazy.” The television ad mentioned at the beginning of Ismail’s video wasn’t a case of Christians trying to absorb Muslims into the fold, but rather of consumerist institutions trying to widen their markets for greater profits. Nonetheless, in keeping with the long history of syncretism, many Christians still endeavor to read as much religious meaning into the totems and methods of the party as they can. The difficult balance to find is whether this effort cheapens their faith or enhances it. It was interesting to see Ismail’s wife Mira exercising the same syncretism when selecting the tree.
Some Christians fight merry-making Christmas by emphasizing alternative or more patently Christian rituals, like midnight candle services, nativity reenactments, or community performances of Handel’s Messiah. In my family we celebrated Advent (one of Luther’s more successful campaigns) that was more educative, less commercial, and long enough to combat the whole marketing season…at least the marketing season of my childhood. We thought about adding Epiphany into the mix too, but never quite figured out implementation. My mom tried educating us about other traditions in a way that emphasized their cultural subjectivity and also made us dissatisfied with our shallow American versions. It was a hard fight on her behalf to immunize us from the modern Christmas holiday that aggressively campaigned to hardwire our childhood minds to demand wasteful opulence. It still is a hard fight to not let the culture compel me to buy or keep hundreds of disposable products for the purpose of feel-good conformity.
In the meantime, many members of the Christian community see Christmas departing into the secular spirit with a contemptuous “good riddance.” They are pleased to see a distracting and burdensome amount of cultural chaff be disentangled from their faith. It is frustrating to have your faith and impact on the world represented by trees and tinsel, gluttony and gift wrap. To have Muslims look at a fancy pine tree and say “oh, that’s Christian” is embarrassing. The holiday’s utter unconcern over waste, adulteration of love with consumerism, and employment of a magical mythos all strike hard against the values of Christian religion. Not to mention that the Christmas mythos presents an archetype with which to dismiss the existence of religion in the world. For these Christians, particularly those who try to derive their values from strict scriptural adherence, the only answer is to boycott the holiday altogether.
So returning to the idea of Muslims celebrating Christmas, I will be curious to see what trends will arise as Muslims enter the holiday’s cultural sway. Will Muslims, like Christians, assimilate into the holiday spirit and strive to justify it through whatever religious interpretation and rationale serve the purpose? Or will they, like Christians, struggle to set up their alternative celebrations in order to stave off the aggressive worldliness and emotional manipulation? Or will they, like Christians, boycott the holiday altogether as incompatible with their religion?