Celebrating Christmas wasn’t allowed in my house. My family is Muslim, the kind that thought saying “Merry Christmas” meant accepting Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. So when we got together as a family during those precious days off from school and work, finding things to do that didn’t involve that fat burglar with the beard was the mission. It was an art form, and I was an artist. Planning our days around Christmas was my canvas.
My parents had both immigrated from Egypt in the 1970s, where, I should note, Christmas is very much a thing, except Egyptians celebrate it on Jan. 7, as Eastern Orthodox Christians do, with the big trees and everything. But in raising their American kids, they were deathly afraid that they would fail to pass down their own Muslim traditions. They went all out. They enrolled us in an Islamic school where we had days off for the Islamic holidays, too. They enrolled me in Islamic karate classes. And when Christmas time rolled around, they taught me to make the most of my days off by doing absolutely anything except celebrate the reason for them.
It turned into a kind of game. When we watched TV, we’d strategically change channels to avoid Christmas commercials. When we strung lights in the house, back when Ramadan and Eid were around Christmas time, we avoided the green and red combo. When Christmas carolers would show up to our front door … just kidding, there were never carolers in my tough Newark, New Jersey, neighborhood. But had there been, we’d have shut off the lights and pretended no one was home.
As I got older and awakened to the political reality of being a Muslim in America, my refusal to do the Christmas thing became a sort of protest. Since I often felt like I couldn’t ever belong here—couldn’t really be “American”—I was inclined to stick to the parts of my identity that didn’t push me away. I’m far from alone. One year, I got a tree—not a Christmas tree, understand, just a nice evergreen tree with decorations on it that we put up in December—and one Muslim friend acted like he was going to carry it out of my living room.
So if you’re like me and spending time with folks who’re more interested in the vacation than the holiday, this Muslim has some tips on how to make the most of it without listening to a single jolly ol’ cheer.
This first tip is essential: Avoid the mall at all costs. Unless you enjoy being accosted by Mariah Carey and songs about it being cold outside, just don’t shop at the mall. I can tolerate Christmas music to some degree, but there’s so much time between “Christmas season” and the actual holiday that by the time we make it to Dec. 25, it’s too exhausting. (I hear this is also true for people who celebrate Christmas, so you can imagine how it is for us.) If you’re down for holiday sales, but not down for holiday cheer, shop online.
The hardest part of surviving the Christmas season is finding places to go absent the cheerful crowds that seem intent on making their holiday all about getting you involved. Ice skating and sledding, what might be considered neutral winter activities, are usually dripping with Christmas swag. Some ice rinks, like the famous one at Rockefeller Plaza, is at the base of one of the biggest Christmas trees in the world. If you’re down to skid and slide, find a frozen-over lake, or stick to snowy hills at the park. Don’t forget about snow angels. Pretty sure those are allowed.
My favorite thing to do during Christmas is mobbing. That’s Jersey lingo for when you gather with all your favorite people and take over any area with sheer numbers. On Christmas morning, while everyone is home unwrapping presents and watching a certain movie over and over again on TBS, town squares are completely deserted. With all the shops closed, you’re guaranteed to find all the space you like to take group photos, play loud games, and do whatever else while everyone else is at home drinking egg juice or whatever it’s called. Christmas morning is the best chance you’ll get all year to be left alone.
Speaking of gifts … there is some flexibility here. Who hates gifts? One trouble every dutiful Muslim child who avoids Christmas must face is being very envious of your friends after Christmas break, who’d trot out all the awesome stuff they got for the holiday. It’s not fair. So I’ve decided that gifts are allowed on Dec. 25. It’s fine! But here’s the secret: It’s all about the wrapping paper. Neutral colors with sparkles are great for wrapping not-Christmas gifts. Books and gift cards are safe here too, but if you’re looking to sneak in some extra cheer, I recommend firecrackers and noisemakers.
Note: Candy canes are not allowed. No exceptions. If you’re anything like my family, you already stocked up on Halloween chocolates immediately after they went on sale, so you’ve got no need for that anyway.
If this all sounds silly or even a little confrontational to you, let’s be honest with each other for a second. Christmas trees, cards, greetings, even the time of year it takes place, all come from traditions that aren’t especially Christian. As Andrew Santella pointed out in an essay for Slate, there was a time when Christian Puritans in the 17th century succeeded in banning Christmas altogether, adding that anyone “observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.” This isn’t really a Muslim vs. Christian issue so much as a cultural choice on both sides, and there’s no shame in drawing a line.
Still, when you’re an American, it’s really impossible to not celebrate this time of year. You’ve got the days off, so what are you going to do? Hide and pout? Making your political lack of cheer someone else’s problem is probably the worst thing you can do. My main rule: Keep it cheerful, people. Just remember that cheer definitely has nothing to do with Christmas.