As millions of Christians around the world began celebrating the Christmas season, millions of Muslims were preparing for this weekend's Eid al-Fitr feasts, which mark the end of Ramadan.
I was doing both.
From age 3 until age 10, I was a student at the University of Islam, a local school for children of the Nation of Islam. There I was taught that Christmas was a pagan holiday and that Santa Claus was a lie that Christian parents told their children to bribe them into behaving well. My teachers also said that Christmas was something the white man cooked up for profit -- at the expense of poor African Americans.
I never bought into these ideas, although my mother did. But because she had been raised a Baptist, my mother couldn't resist sharing some of her Christmas pleasures from childhood with her own children.
When my mother was little she had loved going downtown to see the animated scenes in the department store windows, so when we were old enough to appreciate them, she herded us across town to "ooh" and "ahh" at the lifesize, mechanical dolls. I loved the fake snow that tumbled off the roof as Santa and his sleigh and reindeer landed, and the scene in which Mrs. Claus, with her painted-on smile, turned from side to side holding a tray of cookies for the elves.
Those pilgrimages downtown were my mother's gift of tradition.
My father had been raised in the Nation of Islam. He didn't have any Christmas joy as a child, but he didn't want to deny his children the bounty that they saw all around them at this time of year. So he found ways to justify buying us toys. My older brother's birthday is Dec. 23, so Dad would buy all of us presents in honor of brother's big day. One year Dad took us to a store and let us fill a cart with toys.
Those presents were my father's gift of fond memories.
Meanwhile, my maternal grandparents grumbled about their daughter's new religion.
"That Elijah Muhammad fella wasn't doin' nothing but leading a bunch of people astray," Granddaddy would say. "Leading 'em right to hell."
For many years Granddaddy prevailed upon my parents to let us children spend Christmas Eve with him and my grandmother. I loved the way their house was lit with red and green and yellow lights around the windows and the porch. And inside their front room was a huge Christmas tree that I was allowed to help decorate. Grandma looked as excited as I felt as she picked through the ornaments and glass icicles and silver shimmer.
We would ask where the presents were, and Granddaddy would laugh. "Santa Claus is gonna bring them to you when you go to sleep tonight."
Ma would take us to Woodward & Lothrop's Secret Santa Shop for kids so we would have gifts for our grandparents, too.
On Christmas morning, we tore through the wrappings early. Then we ate a huge breakfast of pancakes, eggs, home fries and baked cinnamon apples, and eagerly anticipated the arrival of our Muslim relatives for an early dinner. Daddy and his parents and siblings joined us despite the Christmas trimmings and trappings because for the children's sake, they agreed, it was important to maintain certain family traditions.
From all of them, the gift of compromise.
Even as our family splintered further along religious lines -- Muslims dividing into camps of Nation of Islam and Orthodox, Christians debating various denominations -- we continued to come together for the holidays.
After college, I began to show up at my parents' Muslim home on Christmas morning with presents and Christmas cheer. Then last year, for the first time, I put up a Christmas tree in my home and had a few of my Muslim nieces and nephews spend Christmas Eve with me baking and decorating cookies.
This year Thanksgiving came during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. My Muslim grandmother, my mother and one of my brothers were fasting, but the rest of us waited until sunset to gather around the Thanksgiving table, where Granddaddy blessed the food "in Jesus's name."
We ate, we laughed, we took turns telling what we were thankful for. The common theme was gratitude for our family.
"I am thankful that we did not let our religious differences keep us from coming together all these years," I said. "And I'm thankful for all the things I learned through Islam and thankful for what I'm learning as a Christian now, and thankful for . . ."
"Whoa! Save it for the book!" my younger brother interrupted.
For a while I wasn't sure that my dual religious experience would amount to anything but conflict, compromise and consternation. Only in recent years have I seen the glimmers of love, light and laughter in my heritage.
These are the gifts that transcend differences and restore and uplift humanity.
My Christmas wish is that others -- Muslim, Christian and those of other faiths -- will enjoy the many gifts of this season.
-- Sonsyrea Tate