Why can’t Muslims celebrate Christmas?
Moderating BBC Asian Network phone-ins, the DJ’s energetic voice brusquely interrupted my overlapping memories of Christmas and Eid. Coarse cotton straight from the forty-yard tha’an bolt. Shimmering saris, suits, and achkans. Coriander, jasmine and mustard seed hair oil. Old spice, khas attar, and shalimar. Narcissus and roses surrounding individually wrapped fruits in da’ali gift baskets. Desi ghee from mithais scintillating with gold and silver leaves. Gota, glitter, and glitz. Teeth shining from a walnut bark rub, lips red, eyes sparkling. Cakes decorated with ‘Happy Christmas’, ‘Happy Eid’, ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Eid Mubarak’.
And then British Asians hyper-ventilating on BBC with their glottal stops and vowel shifts in top gear, breathing hard over keeping or chucking Christmas greetings and celebrations or finally giving in to the onslaught of reinventing the popular festival.
Confrontational politics dressed in theology have converted Christmas into an inquisitorial selection of who greets Christians and who, sanctimoniously, does not. Inversely, if you’re not a Christian and want to join the revelries, it doesn’t bother the Christians. The ones in Pakistan might actually breathe a sigh of relief! And eating a slice of Christmas cake does not make a convert, so it’s risk-free, ritual inter-communal bonding.
Christians are still the single largest faith community in the UK — 59.5% by the 2011 census and in 2014, according to the Pew Research Centre, 70.6% in the USA. Yet, on the subject of Christmas greetings, minority rule imposes its perception on western democracies and contributes to a right-wing backlash which has intellectuals scrambling for credible analyses.
Stimulated in the West, like chicken tikka masala and cheese naan, this attitude has also moved to the East, enjoining the twain and trouncing Kipling. Whispers have been advising a boycott of Christmas greetings. I don’t think Pakistanis would be overjoyed if some non-Muslims started demanding the end of Eid celebrations from public spaces. After all, the Eidi and mouth-watering gluttony are inter-communal — a ladoo is a ladoo, a cake is a cake, just as a person is a person.
Of modest means, expressing devotion and happiness in public in cotton shalwar kurta over an old sweater against the Christmas cold. The shalwar kurta, fresh from the tailor with little threads still stuck on it, its newness commemorating a sacred birth, while the old sweater underneath kept the cold out and the poverty in. Hair oil glistened lashkaraas in the sun. Kids ran around screaming with excitement. Beggars, gas balloons and cotton candy stalls on wheels did brisk business at church entrances.
Even the dishes: chicken, pulao, shami kebabs, nargisi koftas were and are common to both communities, barring a small minority hooked on roasts, stodgy puddings, and a ‘Merry Christmas’ greeting.
Desis from English medium schools chose to say Happy Christmas, side-stepping the merriment business! The desis from desi schools said Bara Din Mubarak in Urdu to speak properly, otherwise it was really a lusty Wadda Din Mubarak and a muscular hug. Every lady in church was Didi jee, Baji jee or Aunty jee. And weren’t those Aunties gorgeous with their overwhelming perfume, soft hugs and big, wet kisses as the men’s moustaches bristled.
Christmas eve, we took mithai or cakes to our Muslim and Christian neighbours and friends and then settled down for night-long youth choirs armed with their harmoniums, guitars, tambourines, dholkis, accordions and violins. Never heard complaints from any of our Muslim neighbours — they actually found the ritual rather charming!
Memories, of course, being selective by nature, can oscillate between a bygone hell and utopia. In the seventies and eighties, there was less freedom of expression and very little recognition or protection of minority rights. Airing grievances was considered ungrateful, uppity, and downright seditious, but at least attacks on churches and communities were rare and bombings unknown. Pakistan has come a long way since then. Christians can complain, Muslims complain even louder on their behalf — bless them — there are some job quotas and the reimbursement of grievances are granted.
But this progress comes at a perversely lethal price. Churches can be attacked and neighbourhoods and their inhabitants set on fire.
Back then, however, it was not considered a sin for Muslims to participate in Christmas celebrations or exchange greetings with neighbours and friends. This gloom took root in the West, initiated by atheists and their allied non-Christian faith community segments, putting Christmas in Coventry. The atheist position manifests on-going anti-clericalism. To the delight of their allies, Christians just happen to be collateral damage.
Whatever the doctrinal divergences of Christians and Muslims, they converge at Christmas with the belief in Jesus’ miraculous birth.
Actually, there are party-pooping Christians who will tell you that the date is fake (so what— it’s the event that matters, bulbul!); the tree, yule log, and associated bells and whistles are pre-Christian Germanic pagan rituals, thereby overriding cultural reconciliation, continuity, and unity in the successful pursuit of bigotry.
Communing is an old, sacred ritual. And Christmas communing is not just bread and a gulp — it’s moti choor ladoos, gulab jamuns, fruit cakes with icing, shami kebabs, skinny sandwiches, namkeen gosht, jalfrezi and home-made keema wala samosas— you name it!
So go greet your neighbours and give them a hug, stuff yourself with politically incorrect treats, and lay each other’s redemptive procedure at the Almighty’s portal to forgiveness.
Wadda Din Mubarak!
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