When I was a freshman in college, I bought a CD of Christmas songs by the Rat Pack. The actual CD is now somewhere in storage, but the songs are safely stored in my iTunes, and the collection remains one of my favorite sources of Christmas music (although for me, not all of the songs immediately brought to mind Christmas-friendly topics. The mob movie nerd in me heard some sort of faintly sinister undertone in Dean Martin’s “Peace on Earth/Silent Night” medley, and I imagined that if I were to ever make my own mob movie, I would use it as the ironic backdrop for some sort of scene of horrible massacre a lá The Godfather. What can I say, there’s a Michael Scott and a Threat Level Midnight in all of us).
For me, one of the most-loved songs on that CD remains “Christmas Time All Over the World,” by Sammy Davis, Jr. (although if Mr. Davis were alive today, I would write him a letter and ask him to change one of the lyrics; no language is strange, sir!). I loved that song long before I ever imagined I would be anything other than Catholic, and even longer before I ever imagined that my first Christmas away from home would be spent in a country where there is zero public celebration of the holiday–in fact, public celebrations of the holiday are generally illegal.
I admit, I’ve been a little conflicted about sticking to my celebration of Christmas as a Muslim…and one who lives in Saudi Arabia, no less. Yesterday, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of posts like, “I’m Muslim, so I don’t celebrate Christmas…” Whereas I was busily preparing a Christmas dinner while A Christmas Story played on repeat. The stockings were full because Santa arrived in Riyadh right on schedule, and even ate the cookies and milk we left out. (We also left out some Goldfish pretzels for the reindeer.)
When Saleh got home from work, we ate dinner and opened presents and stockings. The timing was a little off for us (opening presents in the evening on Christmas instead of in the morning), but it was okay. Being in Saudi Arabia, we had to adjust. Although it was tough for Andy, because Santa left a carrot, an apple, and a small bag of potato chips in his stocking, and he knew, and it drove him crazy. He spent most of the day hanging around the stockings.
I don’t intend to ever give up my celebration of Christmas. I want my kids to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the cartoon version), Elf, Home Alone. I want them to help me make cookies on Christmas Eve, and then be so excited about Santa coming that sleep is all but impossible. I want them to have that sense of excitement and joy on Christmas morning that I had as a little kid.
I think Saleh gets this. A few days before Christmas, I thanked him for letting me celebrate the holiday here in Saudi Arabia. I know it’s not easy to pull off here. We managed to ship our lovely fake Christmas tree, bought years ago for $20 at Walgreens, with my belongings earlier this year. We didn’t really expect it to make it, but it did. On the other hand, a Western friend of mine, who is also Muslim but also continues to celebrate the Christmas season because, like me, it’s how she was raised and it’s a part of her culture, managed to procure a fake Christmas tree of her own this year here in Riyadh…on the black market, naturally. She described the experience as “like buying cocaine or something.”
Anyway, when I thanked Saleh, he said, “You’re welcome, sweetie.” Pause. “The way I see it, it’s your childhood. And I would never want to take that away from you.”
Still, although having Christmas in our house is a given, I admit, again, that this year, perhaps because this was our last Christmas as non-parents, I felt conflicted about it. I wondered what we would tell our kids. Would we explain that well, this is actually, technically, a Christian holiday, and we mostly don’t believe in what it really represents because we’re Muslims, but we do it because Mommy used to do it when she was a kid? Doesn’t that sound kind of…insincere? Cheap? Wrong? Like we’re piggybacking on other people’s holidays so we can get presents and candy and watch good movies?
Then I read this, and it laid out so perfectly the argument that I had forming my head, but couldn’t really articulate. We’ll do Christmas in our house because Mommy is American, and that’s all there is to it. It’s something we do in the wintertime, something we do to teach and learn about love, generosity, kindness, miracles. We don’t have to bring Jesus into it. It’s easy to do Christmas nowadays without any mention of Jesus. For families who want that aspect to be a part of their festivities, I salute that and wish them the best. But for families like ours who don’t…well, we can have Christmas, too.
Christmas is for everyone.
I mean, think about it. The custom of putting up a tree and decorating it comes from an ancient Euro-Pagan tradition. We don’t recognize that anymore. The date that we celebrate Christmas comes from the Roman tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice. Heck, even Santa Claus derives from the old Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, which some have argued also has Euro-Pagan origins in the form of the ancient Germanic god, Odin.
Despite all this, I’ve never heard anyone insist that you have to be Euro-Pagan to put up a tree in your house in December. You don’t have to worship Odin to leave out cookies and milk and expect your stocking to be filled on Christmas morning.
For many Muslims who move to Saudi Arabia from all over the world, the lack of public celebration of Christmas (and other Western holidays) is a refreshing relief. I am not one of those Muslims. I’m Muslim, but I’m also American, and thus Christmas is a part of my cultural DNA. Christmas has never been an overtly religious holiday in my family (I mean, every year my brother and I get scratch-off lottery tickets in our stockings). However, it has historically been the one day a year when we all give and get presents while trying really hard not to get on each other’s nerves. And for me, that’s something worth celebrating. And I’m not convinced that God would want me to give that up just because I don’t actually believe that his son was born on that day. Christmas is a cultural event; I know atheists who wouldn’t dream of not having a tree. Lots of American Jews do the Christmas thing, as well. And, as it turns out, lots of American Muslims do, too.
And I guess I’m one of ‘em.
I’m a fan of Sex & the City (the show, not the movies), but one of the things that irked me most about it was the story arc of Charlotte’s conversion to Judaism so she could marry Harry. What bothered me about it was how the writers focused so little (actually, not at all) on Charlotte’s beliefs about the actual theology of her new religion. Never mind the fact that they made converting to a new religion purely a matter of “I did it so I could marry my husband”–beyond that, they focused on religion as solely an expression of culture; the most difficult step that Charlotte had to make as a Jew was giving up Christmas. Her rabbi tells her that she must give up all of her Christmas traditions; that day, Harry comes home to find her decorating her “last” Christmas tree (it’s June). He hugs her and tells her, “Keep the tree–lots of Jews do.” She shakes her head and says, “No, it wouldn’t be appropriate.”
I don’t understand that. For me, it’s a lot more important that I understand what I believe about God than how I express my culture. Having a tree doesn’t make me a bad Muslim any more than having a tree makes someone else a good Christian. Having a tree in my house in December says nothing about my relationship with God.
But that’s just me.
And because that’s just me, my husband and I are two Muslims who had Christmas in our little apartment in Riyadh. Privately, of course. I respect the religious aspect that the holiday holds for so many Christians around the world, but for me, that’s not what the holiday represents. It’s comfort, it’s family, it’s home. And again, for me, those are things worth celebrating. I can’t imagine not having a tree, stockings, my mom’s recipe for cranberry tea, Elvis and Hanson and ‘N Sync and Rat Pack Christmas songs. Being away from my family and friends on that day was so incredibly difficult. It was the first time in 29 years. This was the first Christmas season when “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” brought me to tears every time. I spent the day vacillating between joy and gratitude for everything (for being alive, for my family, for my husband, for my wonderful in-laws, for it being Christmas, for the tree, for the stockings, for the presents, for the food, etc.) and feeling deeply depressed because my parents, my brother and his wife, my nephew, my friends, weren’t there to share it with us.
Although Saleh doesn’t get the same magical sense of nostalgia that I do at Christmas, he enjoys the holiday, too. He spent his first Christmas in the States with my family. I think he was suspicious at first, but it was pretty obvious that for us, it was just a time of family, fun, presents, and food. And once he realized he got to give and receive presents and no one was going to try to convert him, he was hooked. Every year, he writes a letter to Santa (here’s last year’s, when we were apart on Christmas). Every year, as I already mentioned, we watch A Christmas Story over and over again on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Every year, we bake chocolate-chip cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. Every year, we do things that so many Americans do just because to not do them would leave me feeling like there’s an empty hole in my year.
So on Thanksgiving, we decorated our Christmas tree.
We strung the tree with lights I brought from the States, but within a few hours, they were all burned out. That’s when we realized that we hadn’t considered that our Christmas lights were 120 volt, while our electric outlets are 220.
So we scouted out some new lights at China Mart. They’re not exactly the same colors, and obviously they weren’t intended to go on a Christmas tree, but they did very well. They chase, they blink, they stay solid, depending on how we set them. They’re pretty spiffy little lights.
Remarkably enough, some of my Christmas decorations this year were sourced right here in Riyadh. I found some adorable ornaments at the Souq al Zel.
The ball in the top photo is a Souq al Zel find, as is the white bell in the second photo.
In this photo, the red ball on the left is from the Souq al Zel, while the Hello Kitty egg-like ornament on the right is one of a set of three that I stumbled upon in a toy store here in Riyadh with my mother-in-law, about three months before Christmas. (Me: “Oh, these are so cute! But they’re expensive.” My mother-in-law: “I will buy them for you. You need them for your tree!”) Each little Hello Kitty egg has a small toy inside it: a Hello Kitty figurine wearing a Santa hat. I figured that either the staff didn’t know what they were, or they didn’t care, since it wasn’t actually Christmas time. But I’m sure that if I had gone back to that toy store this month, they would have been gone.
(Here in Riyadh, you’ll find random things that go with Western holidays occasionally, although generally not at a time that corresponds with the actual holiday. The muttawa (religious police) make sure of that. For example, in July, this display was set up next to one of the checkout lines at Tamimi:
There was nothing like this in Tamimi this month, when it might have made sense to buy it. Also, this summer, Saleh and I stumbled upon some Valentine’s Day candles at an abou riyalin. We bought some and stored them for February, when, from what I’ve heard, we’ll be hard pressed to even find anything in the color red.)
I also made this really cool find at the Souq al Zel.
It’s a vintage hand-stitched Baba Noel (Father Christmas). I think it was originally meant to be some sort of advent calendar, as the gold rings around the sides would number 25 if none of them were missing. (Perhaps antique? Not really sure, but I know it’s old by the fabric texture, and some of the stitches have come out). I bought it from a vendor who was happy to get rid of it; he said that he liked it a lot, but the muttawa were always bothering him about it. I just thought it was cool. Maybe in the future I will replace the missing rings and put a candy cane in each one to count down the days until Christmas.
All-in-all, it was a good day.
Dinner consisted of baked steak, twice-baked potatoes (there are two different dishes of those here; one is without green onions, because Saleh doesn’t like green onions, but I love them), biscuits, brown sugar sweet potatoes, creamed corn, broccoli cheese bake (which I tracked down a recipe for and whipped up at the last minute because I was concerned that the rest of the dinner was so starchy), and cherry pie. Oh, and we each had a bottle of Pepsi. Just to give the meal that extra edge of American indulgence.
Santa brought me some really great presents, but the one I was most excited about was the foot bath. (Although I was also pretty thrilled by the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And the Nerds.) Yes, I’m lame. Or old. Or just pregnant. Or all three. But whatever. I got a little too excited about it, and it was the perfect ending to a day mostly spent on my feet, stirring and kneading and baking and slicing and peeling (okay, and dancing around the house a little bit to Christmas songs). But it was worth every second.
Whether you celebrated Christmas or not, I hope everyone had a lovely December 25, and I hope that 2013 brings us all happiness, joy, peace, and understanding.