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?


Susanne said...

The only think I disagree with from this story is that you told the Islamic story of Jesus' birth and not the Christian one despite it being a Christmas post! :-P

Otherwise, a really good post, Chiara. Enjoyed this. You do nice work! :) Now I'm wondering why you don't talk about your husband's time in Germany. I have Syrian friends studying there currently. One German acquaintance told Samer that Germans celebrate Christmas the most in the world. I wonder if that's true or not.

I hope your Christmas was special. :)

angie nader said...

i think a photo got in mix on accident...because i know you wouldnt flip us offf.looool

Chiara said...

Susanne-you anticipated something I was concerned about but I assumed readers would know the Christian story, especially if prompted by a nativity scene. At the risk of being accused of long posts (and comments)--moi? longue? jamais!--I might add it in...tomorrow, I am still recovering from my Santa vigil. LOL :)

I'm glad you liked the post and thank you for the compliment.

We don't talk about the Christmas he may have spent in Germany and the time he definitely did spend there, because we pretend that I don't know about the German he dated after me, and before we got back together. If you like reruns of the program Friends, think Ross saying "but we were on a break!" LOL :) (we were, a mutually decided rather long one). I do know about the American he dated before me, and we don't talk about her either! LOL :)

So many English and North American Christmas traditions are in fact German, including of course the Christmas tree with lights and decorations. I would love to spend a Christmas in Germany, preferably Cologne, Munich, or Mainz. I am sure it is splendid. I would love to see a traditional tree with lit candles on it. It is one of the things German immigrants to Canada miss (fire laws here). Older traditions like the Yule log also come from Germany. I hope your friends are having a wonderful time there, including at this time of year.

I have been having a lovely, but different kind of cross-cultural Christmas which I will probably do a post on.

Angie Nader--Of course I wouldn't flip you off! But I still can't see which is the offending picture. I am so pop culture challenged--please give me a hint! or the picture! I hope it isn't Santa! Is that a gesture I don't know about? Where is the blushing emoticon when you need it! LOL :)

Imperfect Stepford Wife said...

We spent Christmas day with my non-Muslim family. All was well except that none of the meat was halal and all of the food was meat, so we didn't really eat.

Besides that I am very happy to live in a place where people can be who they are, that's enough for me.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful post. I don't have any experience of Christmas with Christian families so it was an interesting read.

I have noticed that my family have our own 'Christmas tradition' developing. Seeing as most if not all of us are off from work, we usually have a family get-together not too different from families who celebrate Christmas.

In Britain, the festive period is less 'Christian' than other nations. Most Brits are agnostic or atheist so the Christian aspect of Christmas doesn't show up much.

We still do nativity plays (I remember being one of the three wise men), but very few British families go to the Christmas service on Christmas morning. Catholics though, are more likely to attend Christmas mass.

Christmas is very German. I remember being told that they celebrate St Nicolas' day on 6th December and the festive period starts from then.

Chiara said...

Imperfect Stepford wife--thank you for your comment and sharing your experience. We were once at a wedding dinner where kosher meat was served instead of halal, which the groom's parents (Moroccan) wouldn't eat. The poor bride's parents (French) had done their best. I blame their son for not telling them to either prepare halal meat or seafood, as I tell my parents when the occasion arises.

Shafiq--thanks for your comment, and compliment, and for sharing your experiences, and knowledge of life in England. I think it is very nice that your family takes advantage of the vacation time to set their own traditions of getting together.

My very first play ever was the Kindergarten Christmas pageant, where I was assigned to be the Virgin Mary--a nice part involving baby doll holding and standing beside Joseph. However, when the teacher learned I was changing schools after Christmas, she told me I had just been standing in for the part, and now would be a shepherd. My gender identity, already firmly fixed, was highly offended at both the shepherd idea, and the brown costume. The theatre is such a cruel world! LOL :)

In response to your comment and Susanne's I am preparing a Part III which should be up tomorrow, ie in about 12hrs--Insha'Allah.

angie nader said...

its the 13th photo underneath An Adult’s Cross-Cultural Christmas

Chiara said...

Angie Nader--thanks! I think I know what you are referring to. It reminds me why I didn't use another photo from that source. I hope you like the new one!

Part III suffered an unavoidable delay but will be up...shortly! Insha'Allah!


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