Over the years, Christmas has been filled with a myriad of different feelings. Before I became Muslim, I always had quiet hopes for a joyful family time, for the usual struggles to float away and to spend enough time with loved ones. I never understood exactly why Christmas hadn’t felt quite right, but somehow it just seemed to lack the magic. I never understood this immense pressure that seemed to build for the sake of just one day. People would get lost spending time, spending money and spending energy on making ‘it’ perfect. I questioned what exactly “it” was that required this obsession with seeking perfection? The wrapping, the decorations, the dinner, it all seemed to lack real substance. Whilst I was raised in a Christian household, that still didn’t bring the depth to what felt like such a superficial time of year.
I’ll never forget when my mum gifted me a giant cushion for my bed. I shamefully remember thinking ‘is this it?’ not to mention she didn’t EVEN bother to wrap it! When school restarted, kids would relay their endless lists of extravagant gifts and when it came to my turn, I would lie or pretend I couldn’t remember. Even as a child I questioned, is this what Christmas is really about? It felt like a division of the classes with such a focus on material wants or gains.
Needless to say, as I got older, I realised that the true purpose of Christmas time was actually all the Christmas Eve festivities with all of my friends. Fun-filled parties that almost always ended far later than they should, with a phone call home to the mum-taxi! I, along with my peers, had become a person who wanted to forget and escape, blocking out any unwanted feelings that came along at this time of the year. There was something missing; there had always been something missing.
Believe it or not, I did actually go to church most years on Christmas day. Pulled from my bed reluctantly, we would don our best outfits (my mum had a rather incredible white fluffy jacket that came out annually as a special treat). We would sing a merry song, share a favourite gift that we had received and embrace the company of fellow Christians. But even then, for me, there was a disconnect – there was still an increasing sense of yearning. Christmas dinner was the usual Turkey feast and someone, if not all of us, would fall asleep during the Queen’s speech. It was a time of togetherness but mostly it was a time of waiting to see what drama would unfold on the popular soap opera Eastenders Christmas Special.
Now, I appreciate that not every revert’s Christmas will have felt like mine. Many people love this time of year and have very treasured memories. After all, whether we were religious before embracing Islam or not, we have cultural traditions that have been with us since we were young and these can be very difficult to step away from, no matter how contradictory they are to our practices and beliefs now.
When I embraced Islam, it was like shedding all the parts of myself I once knew.
There was a period of time when I was redefining my identity – what I valued, how I wanted to show up in the world, upon which principles did I want to live my life by? Navigating my feelings and more importantly, the expectations of my non-Muslim family at Christmas time, was all part of this. I didn’t want to be the OTT ‘extremist’ that couldn’t utter a bit of festive cheer. At the same time, I didn’t want to compromise my firm belief in the oneness of God.
In my experience, it is easy for Muslims in the West to feel obligated to filter down our ‘Muslimness’, to not appear ‘too much’ and to not make any sort of ‘anti-Christmas’ fuss. However, I think it is actually possible to balance this better by appreciating the festivities happening around us without compromising ourselves. I completely empathise that this will be more challenging for those of us who still do have family that celebrate Christmas, though not impossible.
For many years I didn’t return home for Christmas. I avoided it and it felt perfectly okay. In fact, I found that it became a time of great reflection and immense gratitude that Allah SWT chose me. He guided me to the deen (faith) and He brought to me that sense of peace I had so longed for.
However, a couple of years ago my mum was widowed and this changed the dynamic. I couldn’t stay away and leave her alone at a time of year that now holds some sadness for her. In this instance, being in servitude to my mother and maintaining the ties of kinship became my focus. Does this mean we ‘celebrate’ Christmas? Not at all; we hold space, we have a family meal, we provide company and laughter for our loved one and we pray that this is accepted by Allah as an act of ibadah (worship) and as dawah (invitation to Islam).
For any reverts, this time of year becomes about your intentions, it is purely between you and Allah.
No one should be judged by the way they choose to spend the last week of December. It is a sensitive situation which requires compassion and understanding. I know that many reverts feel isolated at this time, hiding their feelings for fear of being judged or misunderstood. It is at time that it is so important for their Muslim extended family to have an awareness, an empathetic attidude and I implore them to hold their revert families close. It can be very difficult to be the ‘odd one out’ in the family and this can bring a sense of grief; there is no shame in this – we are human beings first and foremost, and Allah knows the struggles of our hearts.
Islam emphasises the importance of maintaining family ties. Not only do we have a responsibility to ourselves but also to our parents, siblings and extended family. For those reverts who are spending time with their non-Muslim families this Christmas, it may be difficult to manage these relationships especially if things are tense or strained. At these challenging times, do remember this important advice:
Narrated by Ibn Umar who said that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said:
“The believer who mixes with people and bears their annoyance with patience will have a greater reward than the believer who does not mix with people and does not put up with their annoyance.”
[Sahih Darrasulam: Sunan Ibn Majah 4032]
If things during this holiday season are fraught, then:
- react with kindness – you cannot control the actions or words of others but you are responsible for how you conduct yourself
- take care of your own needs – make dua for ease; take breaks when you need to and balance this by also spending time with those whom you are free to be yourself
- take professional help – navigating these times and the feelings that they stir within us may require some support from the experts. If family dynamics are traumatic in any way, then use those who are trained to help you process, which in turn will help you manage yourself in the best possible way.
For me now, as a wife and mother, the Christmas holidays serve as a chance to escape the rapid pace of life. It is a time to switch off, unwind and lean in to rest. It is also a time for me to reaffirm my belief and to strengthen my confidence as a British Muslim so that I can ‘be’ who I am in a way that is comfortable for me.
I pray that in time, reverts and their families will establish ways to honour each other’s beliefs, celebrating the commonalities rather than being distanced by the differences.
This can be a difficult time of year for reverts as we shake off what we once were and create new meanings.
If you know a revert that is alone during the holidays, invite them over, break bread with them and listen to them if they need to talk.
Just as you would in Ramadan, keep them company and do not let them be alone.
I ask for Allah (SWT) to shower his mercy, blessings and peace over all of us. May He keep us steadfast and in the best of Imaan; may He guide our families so we can strive toward Jannah together, ameen.