Christmas and the lesson of Ashura
Today I'm going over to a Muslim friend's house. We are having a mid-afternoon dinner of roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, followed by a variety of pies. I'm bringing... guacamole, which is a bit of an odd contribution I admit, but probably we'll save it for early evening during the card games we plan to play. I also an invite to a potluck at our masjid this evening, which, obviously, I won't be able to go to, but I have to admit, I'm glad I'm not going to be sitting alone on Christmas Day.
Christmas hoopla can leave everyone feeling out of place. For those of us who grew up celebrating Christmas, but have now embraced a religion that doesn't observe the holiday, fond memories of family traditions create particularly bittersweet feelings. I'm glad not to be part of the whole Christmas commercial/material rat race, but at the same time, I miss the warm family togetherness, the special time with family and friends. The smell of pine, and the beauty of Christmas lights (at least some people's Christmas lights), the catchy melodies of carols, the fun of giving and getting gifts will always evoke special feelings in me. To sit by and watch the majority of society participate in the holiday makes one feel particularly lonely.
Obviously, I'm not the only one feeling this way, since several families are getting together at my friend's home, and people at the masjid are getting together for a potluck. It reminds me of Halloween, when they always have a game night for the kids at the mosque, as many Muslim families don't participate in Halloween.
Some people think these alternative "celebrations" are a sign of weakness of faith. If you were truly satisfied as a Muslim, you wouldn't need an alternative to keep you from feeling left out. The two Eids would be more than enough. But, naturally, Eid traditions differ from Christmas traditions, and Eid doesn't fall on Christmas day, when the entire nation collectively takes a breath and pauses.
Which brings me to Ashura. When the Prophet and his community came to Medina, they found that the people of Medina celebrated Ashura. It was a day of fasting (and no doubt feasting at night) commemorating the freeing of the Jews from Egypt under Moses's guidance. The Prophet told his community to fast as well because Muslims also revere Moses as one of the prophets. Some of the people asked if that wouldn't be copying the Jews, and the Prophet said, ok, so fast the day before or the day after as well. That is, celebrate the holiday, but in our own way.
It seems to me this story validates our alternative dinners, and perhaps even more overt celebrations as well. The prophet saw that his community would feel left out of a commemoration that all the other people of Medina were celebrating. It was a celebration for a good cause (the freedom from slavery for an entire people!) and remembrance of a great Prophet. So too Christmas is a remembrance of a great prophet in Islam. Christmas celebrations didn't really catch on as a cultural phenomenon until well after the Prophet died. One wonders if he would have had his community commemorate Christmas as well, if it had been a current tradition in Medina. Certainly, it seems like he might well have.