Coming to terms with America’s most problematic holiday.
The world acquires a cohesiveness this time of year—all things rendered in red and green, Christmas lights wrapped around every roof, the tip of a festive evergreen visible in every store display. The Starbucks pastry case earns a few reliable seasonal additions, frosted sugar cookies and gingerbread-flavored desserts posed decoratively, ornaments you can eat. Cold hearts have trouble resisting the warmth of Andy Williams’ old-timey voice belting from every department store speaker, “It’s the most wonderful time of the yeeeeeeear!”
Is it friendlier this time of year? It feels friendlier. I am determined to believe that every grocery store cashier I encounter truly does wish me happy holidays, even though I celebrate not a single one.
I’m a Muslim who loves Christmas. I know plenty of people like me, wayward Muslims with Christmas stars in their eyes. My roommates and I have briefly entertained the idea of buying a non-denominational pine tree, decorating it with non-denominational ornaments and then drinking some non-denominational eggnog. We don’t celebrate Christmas, but we pretty much celebrate Christmas. Do we go to Mass or trade presents? No. But do we partake in every new peppermint flavored item on the Whole Foods’ shelves? Do we sing along enthusiastically to Mariah Carey’s moving rendition of “All I Want For Christmas Is You”? Do we tour our local neighborhood Christmas light displays with spiced apple cider in our mugs and true joy in our hearts? Every damn year.
Should you ask me, I will voice some pretty strong opinions on Judeo-Christian hegemony and the commercialization of religious ritual. My liberal arts education had me reading enough of Guy Debord and Roland Barthes to know I’m not supposed to enjoy Christmas caroling this much. I’m well versed in all the arguments against the excess of American holiday consumption. A first-generation immigrant experience has armed me with all the cynicism I need to say, “Capitalism is Christmas’ second religion” with very little irony, and I’m a person who likes irony. I’m a disaffected third culture kid alienated from almost every element of mainstream American norms.
But every year, around this time, I find myself vulnerable to the charms of yuletide merry-making. As a kid, I grew up on the sidelines of all the best merry-making—you ever get pulled out of class when you were about to start making gingerbread houses? It’s true heartbreak. If my teacher were throwing a holiday party, my mom would take me to the mall instead, which only served to compound my feelings of exclusion. It’s at shopping malls, after all, that you experience Christmas in profusion: a cacaphony of carols streaming out of every storefront, a jolly Santa sitting under a super-sized Christmas tree, a line of kids with Christmas lists that spanned the length of their bodies.
There are Muslim holidays, but in the U.S., they lack the immersive, all-encompassing nature of Christmas. Eid comes twice a year, and one of those times it’s preceded by a month of fasting called Ramadan. In Muslim-majority countries, Eid celebrations are as grandiose as Christmas festivities in the U.S. In the days leading up to Eid, the air is charged with positive energy. People are nicer. Crime rates goes down. If ever the clouds were to part and Jesus himself were to emerge from their pillowy tendrils, it would only seem like a natural result of our collective spiritual power.
But here in the U.S., our small numbers and physical distance from each other fragment the Muslim community. Eid loses the vivacity that communal celebration lends it. The ethnic diversity of the Muslim-American community means that culturally specific traditions no longer apply on a collective basis. And there is no institutional support; Christmas thrives, and thrives so well, because it has institutional support. You don’t get days off of work or school for Eid in the U.S. There are no door-buster gift sales on the last night of Ramadan. Most restaurants don’t offer special Eid holiday dinners.
The difference is that Christmas is not something we celebrate anymore, but an experience we consume. It’s not just food and presents: it’s sights, smells, and sounds. All packaged very tightly in shmaltz and nostalgia and delivered to us via a multitude of distribution channels. Covers of classic Christmas songs, holiday lights, seasonal chocolate bars at the grocery check-out, decorated pine trees in the lobby of every office building—all of it elaborately engineered for the production of a feeling.
And that feeling is belonging. As a kid, my relationship to Christmas was contentious because my relationship to America was—and sometimes still is—contentious. It was characterized largely by my exclusion from the shared culture. And buying a Christmas tree or making a gingerbread house might feel like a capitulation to the Christmas Industrial Complex or a betrayal of my otherwise dissident spirit. But America’s Christmas makes belonging into a material acquisition process and it’s a thing that’s hard to resist when belonging feels this good. The truth is, it doesn’t care who you are, or which God you believe in. Christmas—much like capitalism—claims us all as worshippers.