Christmas for Christians, Muslims and Jews


With the White House in the background and the National Christmas Tree at right, people stand for a song at the end of the lighting of the National Hanukkah Menorah Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist December 24, 2012

The tree has decorations made of olive wood from Palestine, Christmas balls of glass, snowflakes and Hanukkah ornaments.

Grandma looks on at the tree-trimming party, a hijab the color of snow covering her hair. Mom, a teacher at a private Islamic school in Reston, snaps photos. Carols play in the background. Christmas cookies are baking in the oven.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

This tableau in a Virginia living room — a scene of family, love, acceptance, celebration and generosity — is what this season should be all about but often isn’t.

You’ve gotta admit: Christmas is pretty unavoidable in this country.

Gas stations sparkle with tinsel, tiny dogs wear Christmas sweaters on their walks, federal buildings are closed, Costco stops selling pies the size of truck tires in honor of the day.

And if it’s not in your religion to celebrate it, the options are limited. You can hunker down for a month or two and try to avoid it or take part in the new American tradition of Christmas warring. You can join lawsuits over mangers on government property; post cheeky, atheist billboards that haters will deface; and support only stores that require employees to say “Happy holidays.”

The other side of the wars — the “reason for the season” folks — aren’t much more palatable.

Or you can take a more universal approach to the season.

“I present Christmas not so much as a religious celebration,” said Nadiya El-Khatib, 33, of Fairfax County. The aforementioned Christmas tree trimming took place in her aunt’s house, where their multi-faith family of Christians, Muslims and Jews find a universal theme this time of year.

“In Islam, we are taught to maintain strong ties with your family, and this includes coming together on Christmas,” she said.

El-Khatib’s mother, a former Irish-Catholic woman named Mary Catherine, converted to Islam when El-Khatib was 5 years old. El-Khatib was raised Muslim, but she always celebrated Christmas with her maternal family and continues to do so with her children.

Many of the Muslim families Nadeem Ahmed grew up with just gave up and started celebrating the holiday, too.

“You get enveloped in the culture of Christmastime. Some Muslim families would put up the tree, exchange gifts,” Ahmed, 36, a Richmond psychologist, told me between caroling and gift giving this week. “We never did all that.”

But he sang carols as a boy in school, went to Christmas parties and took in the spirit of togetherness. It is unavoidable. And it didn’t really bother him as a kid, he said.

Then he married a woman who was raised Presbyterian.

Now he prays in church, goes there on Christmas Eve and worries about getting the right gifts for his in-laws.

“From my perspective, how I was raised as a Muslim, this very welcoming church shares some universal value,” he said of the church they attend in Richmond. “I can feel very spiritual there, look at my own moral character.”

In other words, though he stays true to the rituals of his Muslim faith, Ahmed can find the universal, humanitarian message in Christian Christmas and embrace it.

“The rituals aren’t as important as what they’re trying to symbolize and being able to explore those things at a church, or at a mosque, it’s all about trying to be a better person,” he said.

Doesn’t hurt on the marriage front, either.

Listening to Ahmed, I was inspired and a little saddened by the relentless war of words that continues to scar the season.

Last week, I got an angry letter from a reader who was miffed that we used the words “holiday song” to describe a Christmas carol being sung by children in a photo.

Turns out, “holiday song” took up fewer character spaces in the tight caption space, which is why a copy editor wrote that. But to this reader, it was a sign of political correctness and fear.

It was someone picking a fight.

And that’s exactly what the spirit of the season is not about.

Since Christians — and I grew up one of them — seem to demand that everyone in the country observe this day as sacred (try escaping Christmas madness at a museum or anyplace else — you can’t), the meaning of the day must extend to people of all faiths, creeds and persuasions.

The Muslim families I talked to did it beautifully.

Whether you say “Happy holidays,” “Merry Christmas” or “Season’s greetings,” the sentiment is what is important here, not the words. And that sentiment is what we humans need these days. This day.

For previous columns by Petula Dvorak, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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