Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Chance Encounters

"Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious." Noble Qur'ân 16:125

On Friday, one of the Sisters at the masjid mentioned that she was thinking of getting a Christmas tree this year. I said that I didn't see anything wrong with that, not really. It's not about being Christian. It's about a season of togetherness and reaching out to the people around us. And it really makes the place smell incredibly good.

It made me think about my own childhood. My mom, a lapsed Jew, and me, growing up in the Unitarian traditions of tolerance and exploration of the faiths of others. We always had a Christmas tree, although we laughingly called it a Chanukah Bush and put a Star of David on the top, cut from cardboard and carefully covered with tinfoil.

We were about as secular as it got. It wasn't about midnight mass or the miraculous birth of Jesus, although I knew about that part of it, sort of. Our traditions were about Santa Claus coming up the front walk because we didn't have a fireplace, let alone a chimney. It was about leaving cookies for Santa and a carrot or two for Rudolph. Mom always made sure there were oatmeal cookies and tangerines in my stocking so that I'd get something nutritious first thing on Christmas morning.

To this day, whenever I smell evergreen trees, it sends me back to those warm and wonderful days of my youth and the laughter. Always the laughter.

Now, of course, I'm a Muslim and we don't have Christmas. We have the warmth and community of Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr and sometimes it falls in December. That's when the rest of the world thinks Ramadan is our "Winter Holiday".

As my friend Saheed and I were leaving the masjid following Juma'ah prayers last Friday, we were approached by an older man who smiled and asked us if we wouldn't mind his being stupid and asking when Ramadan was and if it was sort of the Muslim Christmas.

I gently explained that Ramadan had ended nearly a month previously and because Muslims follow a true lunar calendar, each year Ramadan falls ten days earlier, so that next year, it would begin in early October. This led into a discussion about the building that houses our masjid. He had heard that it had been built by the daughter of some very rich man who used it for a party house. I told him that I didn't know about that, but I did know that it used to be a Masonic Temple.

I urged him to feel free to visit our Center and see what a beautiful space we have been blessed with. We parted with smiles and I feel good, knowing that someone now has a better understanding of who we are as Muslims.

5 comment(s):

  • I've always been uncomfortable with the celebration of Christmas as a 'secular' holiday. Regardless of its pagan roots it *is* a Christian holiday about the celebration of the birth of Jesus. I've always felt that it was deeply disrespectful to celebrate it otherwise. Sure, as an American and a former Christian, its a part of my cultural heritage, so I would gladly celebrate it with family in honor of their beliefs and their desire to share the beauty of their beliefs with me. But I wouldn't want non-believers trying to despiritualize Eid, so I wouldn't do it to anyone else's holiday. Its important to me not to separate ritual from meaning.

    I love the smell of Christmas trees. It's the only thing I miss about Christmas. It would be nice to buy a small one to put in a pot and keep it in the house until it could be planted outside.

    By Blogger blagdiblah, at 12/14/2004 06:29:00 AM  

  • Salaam Bobbe - thank you for this wonderful piece. You've brought together these holidays in the Jewish tradition, Christianity, and Islam - in a beautiful personal way.

    Ninhajaba, there is something to be said about not despiritualizing rituals - holidays etc. Although I think the expression of mother daughter relationship -around a tree - tangerines, and laughter - that too is part of being spiritual - and there is meaning in those memories.

    At the same time, i think i understand what you are getting at ... and that is an important consideration. So often there is a disconnect in rituals - from the original meaning, or even an exploration or search for meaning. Sometimes doing the salat/namaz - i can end up just "doing it" hurridly - Rituals (and hoidays) can then end up being empty - and just going through the motions...

    By Blogger redwood, at 12/14/2004 11:23:00 AM  

  • Yeah, thank you for making that point Altaf. Bobbe, I was not trying to devalue your tradition with your mother. Not by any means, your post just reminded me of something I had been thinking about in terms of how some non-Christians celebrate Christmas as a time to enjoy the trappings of materalism, and some of the worst aspects of Christmas culture.

    My apologies if I offended you, I was not trying to say that there was something wrong with the time you and your mother spent together.

    By Blogger blagdiblah, at 12/14/2004 11:37:00 AM  

  • Salaam, Ninhajaba (hope I got that right):

    No, you didn't offend me. Each individual experiences his or her spirituality in a personal way. I do see where you're coming from and I know that you understand where I'm coming from.

    From what I understand about blogging, it's journaling in public more or less. :-) The incident with the Sister voicing to me that she might get a tree comes from the fact that as a convert who is there nearly every Friday, and because most of the members of our masjid know that I come from multiple faith traditions, I'm the one they generally come to for questions about faiths other than Islam and they are curious about how I did things growing up. I sometimes get the feeling that the real, underlying question is: "Do you think it would be okay if...?" Of course, I'm no authority, but I answer as best I can from my own fund of experience.

    The smell of douglass fir always brings back powerful memories, most of them pleasant. Leaving the masjid last Friday in the company of a brother whom I had not seen in a while and whose company I enjoy, as well as feeling at peace with the world (as I often do following the Friday khutbas and prayers), being given the opportunity to reach out to another was like a bonus gift.

    It rattled around in my head while it transformed itself into my first blog. This comment seems to be attempting to turn into a second blog entry, but I think I'll leave it as a comment this time.

    By Blogger Bobbe, at 12/14/2004 04:44:00 PM  

  • Thank you, Bobbe, for sharing your excellent story about Christmas past and present. I feel the same way about Christmas, that it is to be celebrated by everyone, not just Christians. You helped me remember my own happy childhood celebrations of Christmas. And I enjoyed reading the discussion that followed in the comments. As a result I started reading with much interest about the history of Christmas at the History Channel online.

    So, is Christmas a pagan holiday or a religious holiday? The correct answer is that it is clearly and demonstrably *both*; and isn't that marvelous! That's what makes Christmas so very special and memorable to people around the world.

    Christmas is first and foremost a religious holiday. And yet it was no accident that the early Christian church leaders chose to celebrate the birth of Christ at the same time each year, after the winter soltice, when pagans (those who do not believe in the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims) throughout the world have always celebrated the return of the sun's light, just after the shortest day of the year. Naturally the return of the sun has always been a cause of much celebrating, for it is the sun which makes it possible for us to live on earth.

    The religious part of Christmas belongs to Christians. The really fun part that many of us think of as Christmas belongs to *everyone*, every child within us who believes in the magic and beauty of Christmas. No one should ever have to feel apologetic for celebrating Christmas with a beautiful Christmas tree or by giving and receiving presents and gifts at Christmas time.

    It would be wrong and unloving to deny the fun part of Christmas to those whose religious beliefs are not our own. That would not be in the spirit of gentle loving kindness, generosity, and tolerance for each other's differences that is Christmas.

    I have chosen a very different spiritual path than my parents. I still believe in Christmas, now more than ever before. And it is my sincere hope that this wonderful celebration of light, with its often repeated wishes for peace on earth, good will toward men, will always be enjoyed as it was intended to be, by one and all.

    By Blogger Cetaganda, at 12/27/2004 11:12:00 PM  

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