Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cross Cultural Christmases: Saudi, Muslim, Arab, and Non--Part III The Christianity in Christmas

Thanks to comments from readers Susanne and Shafiq, I have decided to add a Part III to “Part I Cultural Traditions” and “Part II Interfaith Christmases” of my post “Cross Cultural Christmases: Saudi, Muslim, Arab, and Non”. Their comments on Part II, from both a Christian and a Muslim perspective, made me realize that I had somewhat neglected the Christianity of Christmas. As the Good Microsoft Office Word Jinn gifted me  with backup copies of the files the Bad Acer Computer Jinn so gluttonously ate previously, I took it as a sign of confirmation that this Part III should “come to pass”.

The Birth of Jesus

The Birth of Jesus* is the preliminary and essential element of the New Testament. This testament, or bearing witness, is necessary to tell the story of God on Earth, or God made Man. It is “new” in its revelation of a God of Love and Mercy, in contrast to the Old Testament which bears witness more to the authoritarian God of creation, law, and judgment. In another reading, the Old Testament is a long preparation for the New Testament, a long series of predictions of the coming of a Saviour, the Messiah (the Anointed one, the King). Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of these prophesies that a great King of the House of David would come to save mankind. Jews believe that Jesus was a prominent rabbi (religious teacher) and maybe even a prophet, but definitely not the announced Messiah. They are still waiting for the first coming of the Messiah while Christians are waiting for the Second Coming of their Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Saints Mathew, Mark, Luke and John

The Birth of Jesus is also the raison d’être for the celebration of Christmas or Christ’s Mass, as a Christian religious festival superimposed on pre-Christian Winter Solstice celebrations. Each of the 4 Gospels (Injil)--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John-- which open the New Testament, opens in turn with the story of the Nativity (or in the Gospel according to Mark, the early life of Jesus), and each one is slightly different, reflecting the circumstances and timing of their writing, the vagaries of oral history, the historico-political contexts of their original audiences, and the message the specific apostle/saint wanted to convey.

St Mattew

Matthew I: 1-17 recounts the lineage of Jesus establishing his bona fides as a Son of the House of David, from Abraham forward to Joseph, his earthly father. Interestingly, this detailed genealogy (the “begats”) is strictly patrilineal, beginning: “I 1: The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”; and ending, “16: And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. 17: So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.”

Verses 18-25 describe Jesus’ paternity both divine and social, making clear that He was conceived by an immaculate conception with the Holy Ghost, and that Mary was and remained a virgin, although in an, as yet, unconsummated marriage to Joseph, and pregnant with Jesus. The “angel of the Lord” advised Joseph, who began to live with his wife Mary, but platonically and as her protector. Chapter 2 of Matthew recounts the politico-historical context of the time, when King Herod was searching to kill the newborn King of the Jews, tried to use the 3 wise men to find and kill him, but was thwarted by their recognition of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, their warning, and Joseph fleeing to Egypt. Angry, King Herod ordered all Jewish newborn boys killed. Later, after the death of Herod, Joseph returned with his family to Nazareth, and Jesus became know as Jesus the Nazarene.

St Mark

The Gospel According to Mark takes up the story of Jesus’ ministry as a rabbi (religious teacher), beginning “1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; 2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” It recounts Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, his wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, and his return to take up John’s ministry after the latter’s imprisonment (by the Romans at the request of the other Jewish sects).

St Luke

As indicated by its opening verses, the Gospel of Luke is a later recounting of the life of Jesus, to set the story straight among the differing versions to that date. Like the Quranic Surah Maryam, Luke begins with the plea of the elderly Zachariah, and his previously barren wife Elizabeth, for a child. 6 months after John was conceived, the Angel Gabriel visited Mary, a virgin betrothed to, but not yet living with, Joseph. Of the Gospels, Luke is most emphatic about the miracle of the 2 births, the special nature of John and Jesus, even as fetuses in utero, and the special bond between Elizabeth and Mary:

39 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; 40 And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. 41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: 42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.

Luke I insists on the divine nature of both John and Jesus, and their place as sons of Israel, descendants of Abraham through the house of David, with a mission to save their people bodily from their earthly enemies, the Egyptians, and spiritually from sin. Yet Jesus, not John, is the Son of God who will dwell in the desert until returning to Israel to take up his mission.

Luke II contains the Nativity story that is so recognizable in religious tableaux and carols, and in Christmas icons, including the crèches or manger scenes:

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The Adoration of the Shepherds for the infant Jesus

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Jesus Yeshua ישוע

21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; 23 (As it is written in the law of the LORD, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons."

The rest of Luke II segues into the recognition of Jesus as a divine messenger, the marks of his exceptionality as a child, and the lead up to his adult ministry.

St John the Baptist

The Gospel according to John returns to the beginning of all creation:

I 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

It then introduces John the Baptist as the messenger of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. This final Gospel emphasizes John the Baptist’s role as bearing witness to Jesus as the son of God, as God made flesh, as God in human form, and simultaneously anchors Jesus as the Prophet and Messiah predicted in the Old Testament. In this Gospel, many of the later metaphors to describe Christ are employed, the Son of God, but also the Word, the Light, the Rabbi (Master teacher), the King of Israel. Much of the Christmas celebration borrows directly from these 4 Gospels, the imagery of stars, lights, crowns, words (carols); the heralding of the birth of the Son of God, the King of Israel; and the Nativity scenes in the manger, with the Shepherds, and the 3 Wise Men or 3 Kings of the Orient bearing gifts fit for a King of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrhh, the gifts of the 3 Wise Men

* The Biblical quotations in this section are from the King James Version of the Bible (1611) as that is the version that has had the greatest impact on English literature and culture, including the religious words about Christmas in prayers and carols. Those who prefer different or more contemporary English or other language versions (including Arabic) may wish to read from this online source.

The Christmas Season in the Christian (Liturgical) Calendar

If one looks at a Christian Calendar marking the days of various religious events to be celebrated in the Church, also called a liturgical calendar and followed by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans, for the months of late November, December, and early January, one notices the religious correspondents to the Nativity narrative in 3 time periods: Advent, Christmastide, and then Epiphany. Each period originally incorporated pre-Christian elements, and now also has new secular aspects.


Advent is the season before Christmas Day that announces and prepares for the coming of the birth of Christ. Part of that preparation is penitence for the sins of the past year as Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, which starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas Day (which depending on the year may fall on any day of the week). It may start at the very end of November or the first couple of days of December. Each of the 4 Sundays before Christmas is an Advent Sunday. Each is marked with a service that includes prayers and sermons preparing for the Second Coming of Christ (after the End of Days) while remembering the First Coming of Christ 2000 years ago, and leading up to that year’s Christmas Day.

One of purple, mauve, or blue, the colours of mourning and penitence, is the colour used in the Church and worn by the priest to mark the Sundays of Advent, except the 3rd one, Gaudete Sunday (Rejoicing Sunday), which is pink in commemoration of passing the half way point and now approaching more imminently the birth of Jesus. In religious homes, where the family are members of the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Anglican faiths, they may have an advent wreath or candelabra with 3 purple and one pink candle, and will light the appropriate numbers and colours of candles on the corresponding Advent Sunday. Some may have an Advent candle, a section of which is burned daily for the month. Following a German tradition, many have a Advent Calendar to mark each day of the month, with little windows which one opens each day to find a saying and a small gift or chocolate. Many of these are extremely beautiful, some are traditional, and some are very contemporary variants, for example a Barbie Advent Calendar for little girls.

A vintage Advent Calendar from Germany where the custom started, new and closed, with the numbers marking the "windows" to open daily (starting with the pennant on the turret)

Besides the Sundays of Advent, specific days have meaning. December 6 is the Feast of St Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. A saint with many miracles to his name, and with a custom of providing secret gifts to those who left their shoes out for him, St Nicholas is the protector of children and the gift-bearer for those who celebrate his feast day as a prelude to the Christmas season. He is the historical antecedent for SinterKlaas (Dutch) which became the Santa Claus of contemporary North America.

St Nicholas of Myra

December 8 is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Ste Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, as Mary was herself conceived immaculately. She was born September 8. The Immaculate Conception by Mary of Jesus is celebrated 9 months before Christmas, as the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, on March 25. Christians themselves often confuse these 2 celebrations of the immaculate conceptions--by Ste Anne of Mary, and by Mary of Jesus.

Ste Anne, Mother of Mary

Christmastide (The 12 Days of Christmas/Yuletide)

The 12 Days of Christmas, or Christmastide/Yuletide, made famous by the popular and secular Christmas song about gift giving, begin on about December 24, Christmas Eve, and end on January 5th particularly in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England marks Christmastide as a 40 day period, from Christmas Eve to Candlemas in early February, the day that marks the presentation of the 40 day old infant Jesus at the Temple for a blessing and Mary’s purification. Another English tradition makes Candlemas, early in February, the end of the period of seasonal inversion beginning on All Hallows Eve, Hallowe’en.

Christmastide begins on December 24th, or Christmas Eve, with a feast, and a special Church service, as well as gifts in some cultures, amd continues with festivities throughout the 12 days, some more formal than others. December 25th is of course a major day both religiously and culturally, with church services, feasting, gifts, and family visits. December 26 (and often extended to December 27) is the Feast of St Stephen, or Boxing Day, a day to remember the poor, and servants, or service people with presents, much as Good King Wenceslas of the eponymous carol, “went out on the Feast of Stephen” with his page, to distribute gifts to the poor, including “yonder peasant”.

December 28 is Childermas--the Feast of the Innocents, a day to commemorate those infants ordered killed by King Herod, in his rage and fear of the Christ child, as recounted in Matthew 2:16-18. While there is little evidence historically that Herod ordered a particular killing at this time, it was recorded, by the famous contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, that Herod had had his own sons killed, and had ordered other massacres to maintain his rule. Matthew puts this in the theological context of the birth of the Christ Child as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies, with Roman oppression an echo of that by the Egyptian Pharaoh.

January 1 is the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, when Jesus was circumcised in keeping with Jewish tradition on the 8th day after his birth. It is still celebrated in the Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite (Eastern Europe, MENA, India, Eritrea, and their diasporas), and the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Eastern Europe including Russia). In the Roman Catholic tradition it is combined with the Octave (8 days) of the Nativity, honouring Mother Mary. Since the adoption of the Vatican II recommendations in 1962, only the Octave of the Nativity is officially recognized.

During the whole period of Christmastide, wassailing (drinking cider punch from a Wassail bowl--more typical in England), caroling, hanging stockings to receive gifts, exchanging cards and greetings, burning a Yule log, decorating with evergreens, holly, ivy, Christmas trees, and mistletoe, and special food treats (nuts, candy, oranges) are all part of the festivities. It is also common during this whole time to attend Christmas pantomimes, seasonal offerings like the Nutcracker Ballet, the latest Christmas films, to visit family and friends, to travel to the homes of extended family members, and to play with the new Christmas toys (both child and adult).

Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, on January 5th is the close of Christmastide, and was often celebrated in England as a “little Christmas”. It still has greater significance in majority Catholic countries, where it is the occasion of distinct festivities, than in Protestant ones. It is a time of role inversions much like Carnival, where masters and servants trade places, and gender inversions including cross dressing, as well as human to animal costumes are part of the fun. These highly codified transgressions of societal norms are part of the Carnivalesque, which occurs in spring as well; and, while seeming to threaten the social order, they are, in fact, a safety valve to vent frustrations in an orderly manner, and preserve the status quo.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Shakespeare’s famous comedy, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, which first opened January 5, 1601, was written specifically as an Epiphany Eve entertainment to close the Christmas season, and contains master servant role inversions, gender cross dressing, identity switches, and a court jester or Fool. The general ambiance of the play is merry, and self-indulgent in drink, food, dance, romance, and trickery.


Epiphany itself is a religious day of rejoicing in celebration of the Appearance or Manifestation of Jesus Christ the Saviour. In the Eastern Churches (the Christian churches that predominate in the Balkans, Eastern Europe (including Russia), Asia Minor, Northeastern Africa, and Southern India) this manifestation is of the divinity of Jesus. For this reason the day is also called Theophany (the Appearance of God to Man), and is the 3rd most important feast of the year (after Easter, and Pentecost). In the Western Churches (the Christian churches that predominate elsewhere), the Epiphany is the manifestation, or showing, of Jesus to the 3 Wise Men, Magi, Kings, of the Orient who followed the Star of Bethlehem to the manger and presented the Christ child with their gifts, then spread the glad tidings of the birth of the Messiah. Thus, the celebrations in the East and West are somewhat different, with the East celebrating the Birth of Jesus on January 6, and the Adoration of the Kings simultaneously or shortly thereafter, while the West celebrates only the Manifestation of Jesus to the 3 Magi--Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar--on that day.

So powerful are this event and its meanings that the 3 Wise Men, the Gifts of the Magi, and the Adoration of the Three Kings, are icons of Western art, much like the Nativity scene itself, where they are often included, but from which they also feature separately:

Gaudi’s 3 Wise Men, la Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain

The Arabian Dance sequence of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas entertainment The Nutcracker Suite is partially inspired by this element of the Christmas pageant:

The Royal Ballet’s classical version, London

Maurice Béjart’s contemporary version, Lausanne, Switzerland

I dare say singing the classic carol “We Three Kings” is the first “contact” for many Western children with the East, and that most have no idea what a “traverse afar” is. How many of us knew the 3 gifts--gold, frankincense and myrrh--and yet had no inkling what the last 2 were, or that they existed independent of the Nativity story, and continue to exist?

Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing, with splendid art images of the 3 Kings throughout the video

The story of the 3 Kings of the Orient seeing the Star of Bethlehem, and following it, has even featured in political art:

Christmas Card

Political Cartoon

Traditional celebrations of Epiphany have variants throughout the Christian world, but 4 themes seem to recur: the Blessing of the Waters, marking the return of safe seafaring conditions in certain parts of the world (eg Greece); baptism of recently born infants; and religious pageants imitating the Adoration of the Kings; and feasting including Kings’ Cakes.

Kings’ Cakes, gâteaux des rois, galettes des rois, Roscón de Reyes, or other similar names, are specially baked cakes with a bean inside.

Traditionally the cake is cut into the same number of portions as the guests, and one extra which is the piece for God. The person drawing the piece with the bean in it is the king of the festivities and wears a paper crown.

The bean may be a real one, a porcelain one, or any porcelain figurine, some very beautiful and kept in the family for years. Some cakes have a second “bean” or figurine for drawing the queen of the festivities, and a second crown--or in a large gathering a second cake is the queen’s cake. January 6 is the day for the Kings Cake but they now feature, at least in France through the month of January.

Epiphany concludes the Christmas season for many. For some Christmas continues to February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which commemorates Jesus’ introduction as a young boy to the Jewish temple, or synagogue. This explains why some Epiphany traditions like Kings’ Cakes continue to be a part of festivities throughout the month of January, and in France Christmas cards can be sent during February.

Today, December 31, is the Feast of St Sylvester, more commonly known as New Year’s Eve, as it is the last day in the Gregorian, and the liturgical, calendars. Pope Sylvester I (Pope from January 31, 314 to December 31, 335) was later canonized, his sainthood based on the longevity and socio-political importance of this reign, aligning Christendom with the Roman Emperor (then Emperor Constantine), and laying the foundation for the dominance through the Middle Ages of the Holy Roman Empire and, for many more centuries, of the prominence of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope in historico-political events. While Pope Sylvester I didn’t attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, he did send 2 delegates, and did sign the agreements made.

This oft-mentioned First Council of Nicaea--convened by Emperor Constantine I at the request of the Church over its concern about heretical teachings, and held in Nicaea (now known as Iznik, in modern day Turkey) for its centrality within the Empire and the Church empire--was only the second general council meeting of the Church, the first being the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem (50 CE) which established the criteria by which Gentiles might join the Jewish followers of Jesus Christ. The First Council of Nicaea grappled instead with doctrinal matters within the Church and was attend by Bishops from throughout the Roman Empire, except for Britain. These Bishops became know as the Patriarchy.

Culturally, Pope Sylvester’s reign had an immense and lasting impact as well. During this time many of the great and historic churches of Rome were founded and built by Emperor Constantine with whom he collaborated:

Basilica of St John Lateran, Rome

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome

St Peter's Basilica, Rome

December 31, as the Feast of St Sylvester, marks the day of Pope Sylvester I’s burial in the Catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome.

The earliest known image of Mary and Jesus (nursing), 2nd century CE in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome

However, most of us recognize December 31 for its secular celebration of the end of the previous year, and the “ringing in” of the new one. Dancing, feasting, noisemakers, and alcoholic libations are the hallmarks of this evening/night celebration. More sedate daytime activities include personal reflections on the year that was, self-assessment, private journal entries, and changing agendas and calendars over in anticipation of the New Year.

In the spirit of the 31st, I would like to wish you all

A Happy (and Safe) New Year’s Eve!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cross Cultural Christmases: Saudi, Arab, Muslim, and Non--Part II Interfaith Christmases

Picasso's Dance around the dove of peace


When I first started researching interfaith marriages I was surprised to discover that many consider a marriage an interfaith one where any of the following religious mixes marry: Low and High Anglican, practicing and non-practicing Roman Catholic, Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic, Any Catholic and Any Orthodox, Baptist and Southern Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist, etc. These combinations seem cataclysmic to some, and I guess they would be to those accustomed to marriages within a specific Church community, or from one parish of the same faith to the next. I was more familiar with considering as interfaith marriages a Catholic and Protestant, or a Christian and Jewish, or Christian and Muslim. As I had experience of successful marriages with these combinations I was more surprised by the negativity towards interfaith marriages, and often the displacement of familial and social concerns on to religion. There are of course doctrinal differences but even some highly religious people are unaware of aspects of the doctrine of their specific faith, let alone the nuances of difference between some faiths. Indeed, history shows that doctrinal differences between faiths or sects often result more from social, economic, and political forces that strictly religious ones. Still, people become wedded to their beliefs, practices and the ambiance and rituals provided by their particular place of worship. More importantly, in some senses, their families and communities become wedded to the same.

Indeed at times, communities, or even global events make particular interfaith marriages more fraught than any differences between the 2 persons marrying: Palestinian Muslim and Israeli Jew, Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant, Sunni and Shia, any Jew and Muslim, yet all of these combinations have happened, and successfully. My favourite expression of this personal entente came from a young Iraqi student during the Doha Debate on the need or not for a new dictator in Iraq:

AUDIENCE Q (Male) (at 34:00+)
Good evening. I wanted to say something like you, Mr. Robert. You said Shias don’t want to live with Sunnis. With all respect, you don’t know what the situation is. My father is Shia and my mother is Sunni, so I guess they want to live together. [Applause] I want to live with my friends from Shia, it’s not like they don’t want to, the problem is they can’t. Why can’t they? Because of the violence.

A Muslim man and a daughter of the book may be fine religiously but not necessarily to parents, families, or their social group. A Muslim man and a member of a non-Abrahamic faith, whether Dharmic (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, or Sikhism), or other (eg Taoism) is not. A Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man of any religion or non-religion may not marry according to Sharia family law, so this too becomes problematic. It is a challenge not only for families, and communities but governments in majority Islamic countries. This is perhaps more true in Saudi Arabia where marriage approval with a non-citizen is harder to obtain than in some other places. The end result is that if not married Islamically in countries where Sharia family law applies the marriage is not valid, the couple may be prosecuted for immorality, khulwa (being alone together when not related to a degree that would make them mahrem), or fornication. The children are considered illegitimate, and may be removed. At least in the case of French-Maghrebi marriages the women sometimes travel with their husband and the children as if they were the nanny. In Saudi Arabia, as I understand it, this would not be possible either, especially if the Muslim woman was Arab or European.

A great deal more could be said about interfaith marriages, but for now I would like to turn to the interfaith couple and family at Christmas time--such an important time in the Christian faith, calendar, and in Christian majority countries. Does one celebrate? How? With whom? If you are a Muslim family living in a majority Christian culture how do you handle work parties, social club activities, the children’s excitement and feeling of exclusion if they don’t participate?

On this, and a number of related or similar topics, there is a wealth of information in English, both online and in books, for Jewish-Christian families, and a dearth for Muslim-Christian ones. There is a little more for the latter in French, but not a lot. General principles that apply to Jewish-Christian couples or any mixity also can be used as guidelines in this situation. Additionally, at least in Canada, public school boards advocate to immigrant parents that children participate in all the secular cultural aspects of the Canadian festivities, including the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter (in Catholic countries and Quebec Pentecost is an important one as well), and Halloween, a pre-Christian observance that coincides with the Christian All Souls and All Saints Days.

Christmas in Times Square, New York

The general idea for couples is that they extend the same compromise they have made within their religion to the holidays. Did they decide one would convert to the other’s religion? No conversion but no observance of the other religion either? Convert but share in family celebrations whether holidays or baptisms, weddings, funerals? No conversion and no religious observances for either? No conversion and each observe their own religion, and/or each other’s for holidays and family events? Something else?

There are a number of permutations that work, as long as they are decided genuinely by each partner and mutual respect is the operant mode, including mutual respect for each other’s religious waxing and waning over time and the lifespan. Statistically, interfaith marriages work best where both are from moderate backgrounds and they accommodate each other. While conversions for the marriage, and marriage by an religiously indifferent individual to a more traditional and conservative partner may work well, these are the marriages that are the ones more likely to have trouble bending to life events over time, and more likely to break down--often at the mid-life of the marriage and in the middle age of the 2 partners. Dramatic changes in religiosity can prove challenging at any point, as can adopting a new religion or belief system that leaves the other partner out.

Interfaith Christmas Celebrations

So back to Christmas and the interfaith couple, and particularly in light of the themes of this blog, to the Muslim-Christian couple--most often a male Muslim and a female Christian with children who are Muslim by their father’s religion, and may or may not be raised Muslim. Each member of the family may be observant or not.

Even where the woman converted to Islam prior to marriage, or of her own volition after marriage, Christmas with its ingrained familial and cultural as well as religious meanings can be a very hard time. Living far from home, family and friends can exacerbates this, as can living in a country, or a part of a country, like Saudi Arabia, where cultural and/or religious expressions of Christmas are limited or forbidden. In this case, the options to phone home to family and friends; to join with others locally who have a Christmas tradition; to take advantage of what opportunities are available; or to choose to travel, even close by, to areas or countries with more opportunities are all important, if returning home for the holidays is not possible or desirable for other reasons. Saudi Arabia as a country, and living off a compound with no access to one, must be one of the most challenging places as there is no general recognition of Christmas, and less than in other places happy to capitalize on consumer opportunities, or to accommodate the religious needs of Christian expats. On the other hand, there are opportunities, and an expat population to foster them. Harder still, might be living in a less well developed country with no substantive expat population, and fewer real or virtual resources.

The Nativity--Maryam/Mary and Isa/Jesus

As December 25th has been designated by Christians as the day of celebration of the birth of Jesus, it is interesting to read not only the Gospels on the nativity, but Surah (Chapter) 19 of the Quran, Maryam (Mary). This surah describes the plea to Allah for a son by the elderly and childless Zakariya; the birth of his son Yahya (John the Baptist) to his previously barren wife; the appearance of the Angel Jibril (Gabriel) to Maryam (Mary), to announce to her the birth of a “holy son”, Isa (Jesus), conceived by immaculate conception, but not the Son of God as in the Christian faith. Isa’s birth was to be a sign and a mercy for mankind.

Qu'ran Surah 19 Maryam
019.022 So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.
019.023 And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): "Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!"
019.024 But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee;
019.025 "And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.
019.026 "So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if thou dost see any man, say, 'I have vowed a fast to (Allah) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into not talk with any human being'"
019.027 At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: "O Mary! truly an amazing thing hast thou brought!
019.028 "O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!"
019.029 But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?"
019.030 He said: "I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet;
019.031 "And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live;
019.032 "(He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable;
019.033 "So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)"!
019.034 Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.
019.035 It is not befitting to (the majesty of) Allah that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, "Be", and it is.
019.036 Verily Allah is my Lord and your Lord: Him therefore serve ye: this is a Way that is straight.
* Yusuf Ali translation

This description of Isa’s birth is remarkable to me for its simplicity and the symbolism of desert life: solitude, dates, and water. At the same time, the divine presence is clear in the conception, the birth, and the miracle of the infant Isa’s speech, as well as his stated nature, mission on earth, death, and resurrection. Dictated to the Prophet Mohamed after the Torah, the Gospels and the centuries following the birth of Isa, the Quran is clear about prior sectarian disputes and their politics, while asserting its truth that Isa was not the son of Allah, but a great prophet.

The rest of the surah addresses these disputes and reestablishes the straight path, in part through a review of the life of the Prophet Ibrahim, and identifying where disbelievers have misunderstood, while giving the correct understanding.

For Christians who have a strong interest in the historical Jesus, the Islamic view of Isa as a great prophet but not the Son of Allah/God, is not so far off as for those who focus more on the mystery of Christ. John Dominic Crossan, the ex-priest and retired Loyola professor and Catholic theologian, has done compelling work on the historical Jesus, which he has published in books for non-theologians, and in texts online. I highly recommend that those interested read at least his website, and the articles published there, including his excellent auto-biography, and follow up on other links given in the Wikipedia article on him, and his work. PBS has also done an outstanding documentary on the historical Jesus, “From Jesus to Christ: The Many Faces of Jesus

Closer to blogospheric home, Jehanzeb of  Muslim Reverie posted a thought- provoking article on December 25, “Jesus was a Palestinian and Why it Matters”.

A Child’s Cross-Cultural Christmas

It is very difficult for a child who has experienced Christmas as a major tradition to go without; and very difficult for non-Christian children in a Christian majority culture to be left out. A Jamaican-Canadian told me the other day that his 5-year-old son, whom he moved to Jamaica along with his wife while he continues to work in Canada, asked on Skype how Santa will be able to find him, now that he is in Jamaica and not Canada. The son was extremely worried until his father reassured him that Santa knew the minute he left Canada and exactly where he is in Jamaica--then he was all smiles. He is not the first child who has worried about a change of country or of home, and the impact on something of great importance, Santa coming to find him and leave presents. A few days before Christmas, I had a lovely chat with a 3-year-old who told me yes he was looking forward to Christmas, and yes he told Santa what he wanted. He added himself, “I am a good boy”, and “I am a good boy, aren’t I Mommy?", knowing full well Santa prefers good children to bad. He was charming, and definitely a good boy.

A 25-year-old Jewish student told me she had always felt left out at Christmas and still did, even though, she like others, made an effort to keep busy, and did in fact participate in secular celebrations. Most of my Jewish colleagues make sure they are traveling or having something great happen on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to compensate and distract. Many say that Hanukah has become more Christmas like in its celebrations along with the religious aspect as a direct result of the impact of Christmas on all children.

Some activities that are hard for children to feel excluded from are: the Santa Claus parade, pictures with Santa in the mall (many foreign university students also line up for a picture with Santa), Santa movies, carols, decorating a tree, special sweets, and of course Santa’s trip down their chimney. Even children who know there is no Santa like to pretend and participate. Many social and community activities are Christmas focused, and secular, inclusionary, and fun-oriented. On the other hand, everything stops for the 25th which can be deadly dull if one hasn’t planned well.

Many non-Christian parents are comfortable with their children participating, and heed the school early child educator’s advice about letting them do so without fear that it will compromise their identity or modify their core religious beliefs. Christmas trees, presents, and treats are rather ubiquitous. Santa visits their home independent of religion. Others, including some Muslims, are more reticent and uncomfortable with any celebration not based on their faith. Perhaps because many of the Muslims I know have been taught by nuns for years, without it making them any less secure or pious as Muslims, I can understand the parental fear, while viewing it as unfounded. Of course this is up to the judgment of each parent, but usually more psychological harm is done by feeling left out than by participating. Participation also gives children cross-cultural knowledge they can use later in life, in analogous situations; and, a model for engaging in a broader social and cultural life without losing their core identity or feeling uncomfortable.

Feeling uncomfortable is a potential hallmark of adolescence, where fitting in is a primary consideration, along with exploring new things, creating an adult identity, and asserting one’s independence from parents, including “rebelling” (some forms of rebellion are more radical than others).  At this time it may be even more important to participate in the child-like rituals of Christmas, in the sober guise of helping younger ones, if need be. It is also a very good time to practice cross-cultural social skills, of greetings, joining in, enjoying, and graciously retaining one’s own views, hopefully now broadened by a demystification of what the “Other” is doing. It is also a good time to practice an adult cross-cultural identity, or at least how to live as an adult in a multi-cultural or cross-cultural setting.

In any case, some activities, including sports ones, and songs are more winter ones than anything else, although there may be a Christmas tree in the vicinity.

An Adult’s Cross-Cultural Christmas

For adults studying, working, or living in a Christian majority country or in a Christian majority setting, the month of December will likely be a month of socializing in a cross cultural setting around Christmas themes, or the more politically correct “Holidays”. Even in some Muslim majority countries working in a Christian owned or Christian majority setting like a foreign corporation or bank, university, hospital, or school, might be associated with similar festivities. For example, my FIL worked initially for a French company in Morocco, which meant the office family Christmas party, with a tree, traditional French foods, and presents for the children from Père Noel. This also meant at as a student spending Christmases in England, France, Ireland, or Canada (and maybe Germany but we don’t talk about that one) was an easier adaptation for my future husband than for some others, who hadn’t had that exposure, or only knew about Christmas from watching films.

From the film, White Christmas

At the functions I currently attend, there are people from every immigrant group, all joining in the fun, exchanging gifts, feasting, and someone, often a non-Christian dresses as Santa Claus. In medical school the Jewish students were involved in organizing the Christmas party and one played Santa Claus annually. As a non-drinker, I usually find and am found by the observant Muslims at any party, since we are the ones asking the bartender for a “Virgin whatever” or “Do you have any mix?--not the alcohol, just the mix, thanks." "Juice? Pop?" (“pop”= Canadian for “soda”). That is one place I meet Saudis, if I haven’t met them before in a hospital cafeteria, or as a colleague, at or at a function for Arab Canadians.

As an adult, one is often responsible for the attitudes of, and organizing the experiences of, others, namely children. For Christians this is fraught with to tell whether Santa really exists or not, when to tell and how. Some choose to tell their children that Santa doesn’t exist but it is fun to pretend, and not to tell the other children, as my parents did. However a majority make great efforts to keep up the pretence that Santa exists, is magical, and can do just about anything on Christmas Eve. For non-Christians the “It’s fun to pretend option” might be a more comfortable one, if the parents also join in the pretence, eg freezing by the roadside for the Santa Claus Parade, lining up in the mall for the Santa visit and paying for the photo, certain presents “from Santa” under the tree, watching Santa films, singing Santa songs, etc --besides children are used to imaginative play, and the youngest have a fuzzy sense of the boundaries between reality and imagination anyway. This also spares one the parental task of informing a firm believer (some of them into their teens) that Santa doesn’t exist, except in the imaginary. Oh the tears! Or in the case of my friend the Sunday school teacher, the recriminations: “You lied to us! This means Jesus doesn’t exist either!”

Skating on the Canal, the world's longest natural ice rink, Ottawa, Canada

Parents of teens need to deal more with teenage boundaries: what parties or sports and social activities, and with whom, for how long, overnights or not, chaperones, safety, and the temptations of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll (or hip hop). Parents of children in their 20’s may have to deal with the much awaited arrival home from university for the holidays with a child’s desire to to bring home the romantic interest they met in university, the one not good enough for one’s (now full grown) baby, and in up to 10% of the population, not of the expected gender. No wonder the holidays can be fraught.

For foreign students this may be a time of an invitation to a Christian friend’s home, get-togethers with others staying behind in residence or in the same “student ghetto”, or sometimes one of loneliness; one similar to, but not the same as, that of students who prefer loneliness to holidays with their dysfunctional families. Cinema, sports, and shopping can get them over those few days when everyone has disappeared; and the internet, home entertainment centres, and oh, maybe cracking a book for next semester, can help with the really slow days, like Christmas Day.

Part of coping might be through “simple abundance”.

Simple Abundance

Simple Abundance, a book that became very popular in the 1990’s, after the economic bust following the 80’s boom in the early part of the decade, was predicated on the age old wisdom of finding joy in simple, small things, and having an “attitude of gratitude”, in other words, counting your blessings, and focussing on what you do have emotionally and spiritually rather than what you don’t have materially. It also emphasized keeping a daily journal of one’s blessings, and simple pleasures, positives, and “abundances”.

As Susie of Arabia’s family has shown, this can go a long way, even in the face of a rather isolated celebration, instead of financial hardship. On December 25th Susie posted a photo, on her Jeddah Daily Photo Journal, “Holiday Colors” of the closest signs of Christmas she could find in her external world, the red and green neon of the pet shop, The Amazon. She initially posted about this being her 3rd Christmas in Saudi Arabia, and the challenge that posed for both her and her son, Adam. Then later in the day, she added in a comment:

“My husband surprised me by getting a turkey for me to cook today, so I prepared that with stuffing and mashed potatoes – and it turned out great. Adam and I are now on our second Christmas movie, and he had a few little gifts to open. We have a little tree that I brought with me this last trip, along with a string of lights and some little ornaments. I’m hoping to talk to my family back home on Skype in a bit. Adam is planning to get together with some of his friends later. So, a fairly quiet day, but good.”

I commented there about a time I was travelling in Italy with friends over Christmas, and one was thoughtful enough to buy each of us a Toblerone, and a little Santa which she placed so we would find them on the night table in our shared hotel room when we woke in the morning. I was particularly grateful to her, as waking up Christmas morning was the one time period where I was concerned I would be acutely homesick. Luckily for me, we were in Florence for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day before heading to Rome and better weather. As one of my favourite cities, I was not much in need of cheering up generally, but that one gesture prevented the Christmas morning blues from setting in.

Another time, I was in Ireland as mentioned in Part I Cultural Traditionsof this double post. I spent hours, literally, trying to get a connection to say Merry Christmas to my family, and wasn’t completely relaxed on Christmas Day until I did. The Moroccan friends I was with said that watching my persistence made them appreciate what Christmas meant to me--about the same as what Eid Al-Adha meant to them. The same determination to speak to family happened the Christmas I spent in Thailand. Because of the time change, getting a connection was easier, but it had to be done in the middle of a formal dinner. Still, it was worth it.

The Gift of the Magi

This classic short story, The Gift of the Magi, by American writer, William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), who wrote as O. Henry, is about a married couple who are facing very difficult economic times at Christmas. While old-fashioned and sentimental, it perhaps sums up best the effort and compromise for one another that those truly in love make; and the search for simple abundance in a time of difficulty, to mark the true spirit of giving and joy that Christmas represents at its essence.

What are your thoughts on, and experiences of interfaith Christmases?
What do you agree with, or disagree with in what is written above?
How would you suggest handling interfaith celebrations?
What are your favourite aspects of Christmas?
If you are a non-Christian, have you been invited to a Christian's home for Christmas?
What was the experience like for you?
If you are a Christian, have you celebrated in a different country with very different customs?
What was that experience like?
Do you prefer not to have interfaith experiences? Why?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


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