The Christmas holidays were the most important time of year for my family (the Browns and the Pattersons). It was the only time of year when we would see our grandparents, aunts, and uncle, first at my grandparents’ homes in Connecticut and then, after they passed away, in our home in suburban Washington DC. It was a time of fun, collective cooking, movie watching at home, and lots of eating.
My family was not religious, but Christmas was still very culturally loaded. My mother’s family had lived in England for many years, so Christmas had a Dickensian feel: an ornately decorated tree, King’s College choir music always playing, and plenty of fires in the hearth. My sisters and I enjoyed ourselves immensely, whether as young children, teenagers, or adults. We were the only grandkids in our extended family (which would be diagrammed best as an inverted tree), so we were always lavished with attention—and gifts. During the economic boom of the late ‘90s, the pile of gifts under our tree could verge on the alpine. The days between Christmas and New Year would also be the time when we would visit or receive visits from family friends in the area, whose children were usually home for the holidays.
I became Muslim when I was 19, at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. My family oscillated between being understanding and supportive, so I never had cause to complain about how they treated me.
During that season of encounter with and the intense affirmation of ‘vertical identity’ (i.e., family and its extensions), there were certainly moments in which I felt intense crisis about who I was and where I belonged. I remember once sitting in near darkness on the couch at my mother’s office at home, crying intensely for a few seconds, asking myself in a voice nearly audible where I belonged. But it’s hard for me now, looking back, to know how much of this was because I was Muslim in a non-Muslim family, and how much of it was just the normal early-adulthood formation of one’s identity as distinct from one’s parents.
I did not worry too much about the religious implications of Christmas, since I was by leagues the most religious person in my family. No gestures were made to commemorate the birth of Christ or even acknowledge any secular, sitcom ‘spirit of Christmas’ treacle. In fact, my mother’s very pleasant habit of putting Handel’s Messiah on repeat during those days of the year afforded me a chance to hear key selections of the Bible sung over and over. I would often ponder which verses I, as a Muslim, could celebrate and/or what interpretations would be required for me to do so.
Looking back across the chasm of a decade, I see that Christmas was the time I was at my most deferential. I think that, whether I was conscious of it or not, I so wanted to reassure my family that I was not so different as to deserve their rejection.
I hid my Islam as deeply as possible without quaffing glasses of sherry. Even when one militantly atheist relative gave me a Richard Dawkins book for Christmas, I recall responding with embarrassing submissiveness.
I wonder what would have happened if I’d manifested my Muslim identity more prominently during my twenties. I doubt I had the strength to do so, even if I’d wanted to. The chance to experiment was snatched away by the Most High. The collision of my Islam and my ‘vertical identity’ really only came when I got married at 32. This was not because of anything my wife did or was. But the manifestation of my Islam as something outside of the invisible container of my own thoughts and meager principles caused tension. For the first time, my Islam was outside of me. It was a relationship and a person, even if that person was admired and happily accepted. When our first child was born, my father asked when we would baptize him. That this had not been asked of anyone else, my being the sole non-(cultural)-Christian in the family, but also the only religious person at all, did not seem to matter.
But my wife and I never had the chance to celebrate those Brown-Patterson Christmas traditions. Just a few months after our wedding, my mother died. She was the axis of our family and our home, and without her, individuals spun outward. I can’t remember what and how we celebrated in the wake of her death, as all was loss and shadow. My sisters both married around that time, and there were then other families to celebrate Christmas with, with their own traditions. Our family home was sold, and those settings and traditions that had been the constants of my life were all gone.
What insights or benefits can these recollections offer? My life has never (thank God) been dramatic or particularly worthy of voyeuristic interest. Mine was a youth of comfort and plenty, of loving family and admirable friends. I was never persecuted or mistreated. What pain I felt as a convert was nothing compared to what others have gone through and likely had more to do with my delicateness and unassertiveness.
What I could extrapolate is that, as with our prayer (salat), one is not fully Muslim in private or in the closeted off garret of one’s own mind. To be Muslim, one really must be Muslim with others.
That might bring the tensions that always accompany making the private public, but we are lost—or, better phrased, never really found—if alone. As the famous poet al-Mutanabbi wrote:
صحب الناس قبلنا ذا الزمان وعناهم من شأنه ما عنانا
Those who came before us knew the challenges of time,
They were concerned with what concerns us too.
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