This festive season offers a unique opportunity for people of different faiths to celebrate one another's festivities.
Christmas is only a couple of weeks away and, here in Belgium, where Santa Claus (aka Sinterklaas) visits early, the festivities have already begun, with Christmas markets, sound and light shows, and delicious chocolate reincarnations of the great saint himself.
There has been recent controversy about the status of Christmas in today's multicultural society. To my mind, multicultural should mean just what the label says, ie a multitude of overlapping and interconnecting cultures enriching and enlarging one another; and not a series of segregated cultural ghettoes. That means minorities should also take part in Christmas, and natives should make an effort to learn about and join in the festivities of other groups.
Some pious Muslims – not to mention Jews, Hindus, etc. – may object to celebrating Christmas because they don't believe in it. Well, neither do many “Christians” in the West. That's also ignoring the fact that Muslims have always marked non-Muslim occasions. One Islamic celebration, Ashura, is actually the Jewish Yom Kippur. Besides, you don't actually need to believe in something to appreciate that others do and share in their joy. This is not an expression of faith but a statement of solidarity and an opportunity to bridge cultures in an unintimidating way.
For me, there is nothing divine about organised religion, yet I am quite happy to crash any party if I am in the neighbourhood, be it Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh. Being a laidback and fun-loving sort of bloke, I sometimes wish, especially at busy times of year, that every day was a holiday or, failing that, a holy day.
In fact, I don't believe in much of the Christmas backstory. Even though I have met the genuine Santa as an adult, I have never believed in him, as my parents disabused me of that alien cultural myth at an early age. I also very much doubt that Jesus was born to a virgin or on 25 December (7 January in orthodox churches). After all, it stands to reason that he should have been born on the first day of the first year of our lord.
The date was possibly chosen as a replacement for winter festivals, such as the Roman Saturnalia, that already existed in that sensible pagan practice of breaking up the cold, dark winter months with heart-warming mirth and revelry.
It would be silly to suggest that Christmas is alien to myself or other western Muslims. Yuletide has been part and parcel of my cultural make-up for almost as long as I can remember.
Although I don't believe in Jesus's divinity, I have no objections to putting “Christ back into Christmas”, as Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has urged.
In primary school, my siblings and I took to the nativity play with as much enthusiasm as our Christian friends and my mum just as happy to see us up on stage as all the other parents. I was in the school choir before my voice broke; my brother played one of the wise men, which he later adapted to wise guy; and my sister played an angel and still strives to be one. As an adult, I have played a Rastafarian Ghost of Christmas Past and go to see the nativity display on Brussels' main square every year.
Then, there were the televisual staples of 1980s childhood: James Bond thrillers; endless repeats of The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins; the Pink Panther, not to mention the comedy specials. There were the carol singers on the streets and the occasional drive into central London to see the Christmas lights, the enthusiasm for which was somewhat dampened by the slow advance of the red-tailed traffic serpent.
Nevertheless, the domestics of Christmas did not penetrate far into our household. As kids, we never had a Christmas tree, which was no real hardship. We also didn't receive presents from our parents, or send out cards until our mother realised that it made us feel left out and decided there was no harm in our adopting this aspect of Christmas.
Seasonal delicacies, such as mince pies and Christmas cake or pudding, were alien concoctions to us. A turkey once found its way into our oven and it nested in our home until around twelfth night.
I still recall the reverential silence which overcame my siblings and I when our parents, out of politeness and probable curiosity, agreed, at the persistent insistence of our neighbours, to taste some wine during a Christmas dinner they invited us to.
Our parents' decision to cast their Muslim caution to the frosty December wind only lasted for one sip before their faces convulsed in child-like displays of revulsion at the strange sensation washing over their palettes – this triggered a ripple of laughter which excused my parents from any further obligation to touch the forbidden substance.
See! I clasp the cup whose power
Yields more wisdom in an hour
Than whole years of study give,
Vainly seeking how to live.
Wine dispenses into air
Selfish thoughts, and selfish care.
Dost thou know why wine I prize?
He who drinks all ill defies:
And can awhile throw off the thrall
Of self, the God we worship-all!
Khayyam had obviously never observed the wasted clubbers of the stoned age. Although they do lose their sense of self, as well as of place and time, for them, wine dispenses into air all coherent thoughts and speech. But a drink sipped in contemplation can sooth, inspire, lubricate your imagination and help you take a step back from life.
It is only as an adult, married as I am to a Belgian, that I have gained true insight into the intimate, domestic aspects of Christmas. Although Christmas here is different than in the Anglo-Saxon world, the basic features are the same.
From Christmas Eve through to the new year, we host or are invited by family and friends to dinners and parties. The initial thrill is gradually accompanied by a slight sense of dread at the long road, paved with sumptuous food and intoxicating drink, which still lies ahead. While some take to this with abandon, being moderate people, we try to pace ourselves during the marathon.
That socialising intensity is one of the pleasures and drags of the season. Another drag is Christmas shopping, which we try to perform with ruthless and organised efficiency. This weekend, I braved torrential rain, armed with little more than an umbrella, to go gift shopping, vaguely wishing either the downpour would stop or I'd grow a convenient extra arm. So, when the new year arrives, we greet it both with relief and disappointment at the long, unadorned weeks of winter that still lie ahead.
This year, as chance would have it, Jews are winding up their celebrations of Hanukkah, the festival of light, while Muslims will mark Eid el-Adha – which celebrates God's decision to spare Abraham from the cruel injunction to sacrifice his son, Ismail (perhaps a mythical analogy of the abandonment of human sacrifice in semitic faiths) – around 20 December. This offers a prime opportunity for believers in multiculturalism to mark a month of mutual celebrations together.
Although I am due to visit Egypt this week, I will miss the actual festivities. Shortly after dawn, beautiful chanting breaks out across the cities as people swarm to public squares and mosques to offer up a special Eid prayer. The poor sacrificial lambs and sheep, whose bleats have become an integral part of the city's cacophony for days, disturbingly fall silent later in the morning.
Children are decked out in smart new clothes, exploding crackers and expectantly awaiting their eidiyas (monetary gifts) from adults. Delicious Eid sweets and mutton and lamb dishes fill dining tables everywhere. And guests are force fed banquets of mouth-watering delicacies on pain of social death.
Given my varied background, Muslim and Christian festivities are both familiar and exotic to me. But one thing I have learned is that sharing good times with other cultures is fun, healthy for the soul and good for society.
Chanukah sameach, Eid said and merry Christmas.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 10 December 2007.