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Christmas, curry and many faiths

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Tuesday, 29 December 2009


Growing up as a Muslim, I never enjoyed Christmas. I was surrounded by rituals, events and hype about something I was told not to believe in. Friends rang my doorbell early on Christmas morning ready to show off their presents. I gawked at their bike or remote-control car but then quietly retreated to my room, wondering when television would graduate from the singing of carols and uplifting stories of sacrifice to being filled with hours of cricket.

As with Palestinians and Iraqis, I felt humiliated and dispossessed by an overbearing show of Western force, outgunned by gigantic Christmas trees and ostentatious decorations.

Nor did reassurance from my parents help. They reminded me that I received presents during our Muslim ''Christmas'', known as Eid, which was also filled with gluttony and, at least in countries that were majority Muslim, crass commercialism.

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I was asked to recognise that our community had its own Santa Claus-like figures, armies of long-bearded old men who kept odd hours and retained tabs on who had been naughty or nice. They were known as sheikhs or mullahs. Their presents ranged from fatwas to obscure references to the Koran.

I became resentful about Christmas. Having no outlet to channel my anger, I quietly withdrew to my sporting memorabilia. I dreamt of a world where I could belong, eating bacon and swilling alcohol without fear of retribution.

My younger sister was more aggressive and insistent on celebrating Christmas. Suddenly our home was filled with trees and decorations, tinsel, streamers and even a strange herb called mistletoe. Small presents appeared in our house, although they rarely survived until Christmas morning to be opened.

The food didn't change. There were no Christmas turkeys or mince pies. We continued to eat my mother's parathas, curry and a lassi-like drink that was meant to be like egg-nog, but laced with turmeric.

Given Islam followed a lunar calendar, there were several years when the major Muslim celebration coincided with Christmas, much like the Jewish Hannukah does each year. This was a time of particular joy, for it allowed us to assert our religious festival more forcefully, to trumpet our minority identity in a multicultural society. It was ''Chanukeid'' season.

Some Muslims even began giving greeting cards and decorating their houses. The miracle of the virgin birth was replaced with the miracle of Muhammad splitting the moon. I lobbied for something equivalent to midnight Mass at the local mosque but the clerics rejected it vehemently.

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They argued that the mimicking of Christian celebrations was a capitulation to the dominant culture. I told them it was tough showing off to friends about praying five times a day.

Surveys among American Jews have shown that those who are most concerned with assimilation are most likely to go all out for Hanukkah, to entice their kids to keep the faith. This was also true for Muslims, an example of a competitive marketplace in the realm of religious festivals.

The more we attempted to mimic Christmas, the more it became clear Christmas had evolved into a secular celebration as much as a religious one.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on December 24, 2009.



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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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