How my Muslim-Catholic family celebrates Christmas

A tandoori spiced turkey and fruit filled stockings are the holiday traditions of one young family
By Anam AhmedPublished on 12/18/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT
Anam's daughter helps decorate the family tree

For most of my life, Christmas was just another day. Growing up in a Pakistani-Muslim family just outside of Toronto, I saw Christmas as a holiday that came with some much-needed vacation time and excellent Boxing Day sales.

Once in a while, my parents would get into the holiday spirit, and we’d invite our friends over to eat turkey and stuffing. They would put Christmas carols on YouTube and wear red and green shirts, and we’d pretend like we knew what we were doing when it came to celebrating the holiday. Though, one thing we never did have was a tree. That seemed to be what set us apart from the people who really celebrated Christmas.

But most years, instead of anything official, we’d go to see a movie together on Christmas Day or just hang out at home as several feet of snow fell outside.

All of that changed when I met my husband. His Dutch-English Catholic family celebrated Christmas just the way I had imagined people did. There was a massive tree by the fireplace, decorated with gold and red tinsel, ornaments from their childhood hanging all over. Green garland covered the banisters along the staircase and cottony fake snow adorned the hutch in the dining room, with a full winterscape complete with baby Jesus on top.

The house smelled like turkey, which had been cooking for several hours. There was baked brie with cherry jam and shrimp cocktail on the coffee table in the living room. It was wonderful–it was everything I thought Christmas was–at least from what I had seen on TV.

Even though we lived in Canada, most of my friends didn’t really celebrate Christmas, so I didn’t have the opportunity to experience it firsthand until I met my husband. Many of my friends were Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Atheists, so Christmas was just another day for them, too.

But at my in-law’s house, Christmas was a big deal. There were small mountains of presents under the tree, all wrapped beautifully with color-coordinated ribbon and heartfelt notes. There were stockings hung along the mantle, with each family member’s name on them. They were mismatched and a little tattered, worn from years of use.

Celebrating Christmas with my husband’s family was magical for the first several years. I loved the warmth–the hugs, presents, and laughter. I loved the scents–the cinnamon, chocolate, and pine from the tree. I loved the light–everywhere houses were lit up with flashing lights that made me want to dance and bust spontaneously into song.

Then we had kids, and my feelings began to change. I loved celebrating Christmas with my husband’s family, but I wanted to create traditions for my children that encompassed both sides of their heritage. My husband and I agreed that we would celebrate both Muslim and Catholic holidays with equal enthusiasm, but we could create customs for our family that were unique to us.

So, we began to celebrate Christmas in our own special way. Charity is a major aspect of Islam, and it’s important to give when celebrating something joyous. Slaughtering an animal and giving the meat to the poor is a traditional way charity is given in Pakistan.

With that in mind, every Christmas, we donate two goats, one from each of our kids, through Plan Canada. The animals are used for milk and meat by families in developing nations. Similarly, we ask the kids to set aside some of their own toys to give to families in our community who can use an extra hand. Our girls are almost 4 and almost 2, so parting with their playthings is no easy task, but they understand that it’s something they have to do.

In my family, every major holiday is celebrated with lamb. When we host Christmas dinner, lamb joins the turkey on the table, as do gulab jamun and baklava, desserts I have grown up with and can’t imagine celebrating without. Sometimes, the turkey gets a tandoori rub to spice things up a bit, and other times we go the butter and lemon route.

A tradition we keep from my in-law’s side is putting a piece of fruit at the bottom of the stocking. Carried over from war-time when fresh produce was a scarcity, it’s a reminder for us to be thankful for the little things in life. The fruit in the stockings has been the highlight for my kids so far. Last year, they spent most of the day talking about the apples they got for Christmas.

As for presents, we keep it to a minimum. Mostly books and clothes they need for the upcoming year, with a few toys they stopped playing with re-gifted to them for good measure. For now, my kids are happy with that and we are, too. We don’t tell them Santa brings them their gifts. I think at 4, my older daughter already knows he’s not real, and I’m okay with that.

One aspect that my husband and I haven’t quite decided on is the Christmas tree. Last year we decided not to put one up, and then changed our minds at 8 p.m. on December 24th. This year might be the same—we’re still undecided.

The Christmas tree holds so much meaning that it somehow complicates the entire holiday for me. Sometimes I feel like by having a tree I’m turning my back on my Muslim roots, and other times I just want to look at the pretty lights and have a nice spot to put presents. My husband doesn’t mind either way, which makes it even harder to decide.

Either way, tree or no tree, our Christmas will be festive. There will be warmth from both sides of the family. There will be mouthwatering aromas from the overly crowded dinner table, filled with lamb, turkey, and honey-drenched desserts. There will be light, if not from the Christmas tree, then just from within. Either way, tree or no tree, it’s not going to be just another day.

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