My Muslim Xmas

Originally published in Linked In - I forgot to add it here.  Duh.

A post I wrote about my British Muslim Xmas in December 2014.

Read it here on Pulse - for LinkedIn. Or if you prefer.  See below.

Season's greetings.
I wanted to share one of my secrets. Today I am proud to be a Muslim (something I always struggled with having spent so much time as a lapsed member). But come this time of year, I am immediately giddy with excitement.
I love Xmas. So there.

I definitely do not celebrate Xmas from a religious perspective. I know 25 December is not officially deemed Jesus' birthday. Apparently it has origins in the pagan Roman Winter solstice festival. And while "Christ's" "mass" religious identity is perhaps diluted and now a season for all people - it is still a unique time. This date is often slated over and above all other religious festivals because it also arrives with much mindless commercialism fanfare that many of us I know are loathe to witness. Such as the mindless spats over which Xmas retailer's advert was the best (incidentally Sainsbury's was the best by far). But for all this, I still adore Xmas. As a Muslim.
It is surely the only time (World Cup aside), when millions of us across the continents of the world and within the Western hemisphere gather in unison. When more people find themselves swept closer to religion - even if they never practice it. Or loathe it. A fixed time in the year when we are all reminded to ponder, reflect and gather - regardless of faith. To mark goalposts. While we drink, eat and be merry (even if mine will be alcohol free), we all express good tidings to each other over these holidays. Once that is over we then say goodbye to the year and look forward to a new chapter. And it is why this time helps someone like me to reflect how far I have come on in my own life.
This year for me has been tumultuous and heavy, personally. In addition, I became deeply angry at being powerless over the many global tragedies in 2014. I ponder non-stop about the innocent lives of those teachers and kids lost at Peshwar, of the Rohingya tribe fighting and fleeing for their lives, of Gaza's innocent murdered kids and of course the unnecessary deaths of the hostages in Sydney to the disgraceful findings of the CIA torture report. Which is still not availing the world of the truth it seems given Twitter is awash with alleged reports of threats of rape by American interrogators of kids - in front of of their parents.
Not to mention the innocents killed by Ebola and Death Row, the people who are oppressed, abused, impoverished and enslaved in nations like Central African Republic. Refugees starving, dead. And orphans in unchecked orphanages. To even Adnan Syed, the unlikely true crime prisoner in jail over the murder of his ex-girlfriend via the phenomenally successful @Serial podcast, all of which has led five million people to ponder over his innocence.
I think of it all. And my heart bleeds a little because I do not know their starvation, oppression or tragedy. I remember that I am lucky. Lucky I have this time to be free. To eat. Drink. And be merry. Not just at Xmas. But every day. That no matter how hard my life is, there are others who did and do - suffer worse.
I am often reminded of the ones who I know are also truly alone. Who have the courage to tell us they are feeling bleak and poor. All of which was painfully brought to light recently by LBC Radio's fabulously kind, critical friend to Londoners - radio presenter Mr James O'Brien, who handled the heartbreaking call from a struggling man too poor to eat a few weeks ago. And yet look! Look at how everyday people, having heard his story, are rushing forward to help. Xmas makes it that bit harder for us all to turn a blind eye in the UK I guess...?
Which is why this festive season is also a great anti-dote. Xmas does bring us all some much needed festive cheer to kick out doom, gloom and despondency. To invite in hope and to wash the slate clean. Not dissimilar in that sense to the concept of Islam's Ramadan - except of course there is a requirement upon Muslims to meditate, fast and to sacrifice all physical pleasures between sunrise and sunset.
But I think what I notice a lot during this season is just how many people will connect. Spread good tidings and wish for peace and happiness. And lift their heads from a gadget, or to type via social media and ask: "who will you be with this Xmas?' and 'what and where will you be?' And I mean anyone and everyone. Even new business acquaintances whom one would normally take time to break the ice over are happy to talk more freely than usual. Such questions and answers always makes me smile. Their responses give me an extraordinary insight very quickly to people's families, history and sometimes genealogy/heritage as they tell me of plans to move heaven and earth to meet loved ones. Or the problems with their loved ones (!).
My own love of Xmas stems back to my dreams of escape I guess. To the house in which I was subjected to a very strict upbringing. Every year, Xmas was my annual chance to get a little 'breather' from weekend classes that I abhorred. The study of the Koran in a language that was alien and distant. Which I was told I had to try and learn chunks of - all by rote. And I did. Even though I was aged 7.
I soon found myself wanting to eschew these Koran classes every weekend day - where aged 7 until 13, for 2-3 hours from 9am every Saturday and Sunday I'd sit cross legged in a family circle. And learn said chunks of the Koran from rote. Followed by translation of the ancient script in Bengali written inside the holy book. As I rocked away on my little hind legs, with my head scarf slipping every five minutes and chanting ancient Arabic - yes, my mouth would move. I had no idea what any of it meant. But my little mind would be transported. Anybody watching me had no idea that even as the Koran was recited by me, my mind would wonder, making fantastic shapes in my head from the cheap embossed shiny wallpaper where it was mentally plotting fictional stories. All to the tune of the Koran.
But come Xmas, I recall the strict Koran schedule slipping. The crying, begging and pleading to be allowed to watch Xmas TV. For many of us kids born in London of immigrant families, who come from a strict, orthodox Muslim family of Bangladesh heritage, we were simply told Xmas was not done in our house. A vat of the usual home cooked curry would be plonked on Xmas day and that mantra: "it is not a special day for us" would ring hollow and stick in my throat - as we chewed and slurped chicken curry. But even so, I used to get angry. And stare angrily at the television that had been yielded to us temporarily. To my childlike mind, it only made it worse. I hungered deeply for such an experience. With its shiny adverts, roast turkeys and happy families who gave each other wrapped up presents - it simply made me so sad and wistful.
We got the TV deal as my father knew he had little control at Xmas with desperate kids exposed to British culture. Despite cajoling endearments to remind us that we were Muslims and that this Christian season was simply incongruent with our lives, it was not enough to appease me. I would still secretly rebel - in my own way.
"My family can't reach me in school can they?" thought little old me. And with that decided in my 7 year old mind, plans were hatched. As a kid I made sure I sung - nay screamed out loudest at every Xmas hymn. Even now God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Silent Night has me reaching for a virtual Victorian top hat. I would watch all Xmas TV idents over and over. My first cartoon books were Raymond Briggs' 'Snowman' followed by his very grumpy 'Father Christmas'. And the best page of course? Where he sits on - the loo!
I would ask relentless questions about Xmas plans of even my aloof and snotty racist classmates. "What do you eat? When will you open presents? Will your parents get drunk? Why does the Queen only speak on Xmas day?'. I lived through them and their stories. Meanwhile at night, I would visually and feverishly gobble up Briggs and then Dickens' Xmas Carol until Scrooge was the hero in my mind - from page 1.
Any wonder that I vowed as a little girl that when I grew up, all that would change. I fantasised about my Xmas as an adult. How I would one day no longer press my nose against the cold glass window in my bedroom, while my after lunch icy legs grew numb because they were not being toasted anymore (having fought to be the winner of the daily fight to lean against the radiator under our window sill overlooking the road outside). This canvas of metal sheet you see cranked out heating - only when it was evening or early morning. Anyhow, my icy legs and I would dream of a cottage. A shiny Xmas tree. And a halal turkey with all the trimmings. Including mock bacon (yes such a thing exists - it is called 'Makon').
But I was still a child and adulthood was so far off. And I was forced to sigh and exclaim alongside my siblings over the post curry lunch time to-ing and fro-ing of our fellow neighbours bringing in shopping. We would debate which house on our street was destined to have the best Christmas. Based purely on our conjecture. From the point of view of us kids. Critical factors included judging a house's exterior and interior house lights; the effort to decorate the house; whether a Xmas tree could be spotted; and the quantity of voluminous shopping bags excitedly dragged in by tightly wrapped up neighbours whom we could only spot and recognise via their cars. My goodness, I was such a stalker as a young kid.
And I now look back and sense that this was because we had little in the way of extended family beyond my own immediate family. How I envied the greetings I would see exchanged at the front door. People kissing and hugging and welcoming in their relatives on Xmas day. And as they entered the house, I would watch mesmerised as in turn, their very Xmassy house spilled out warm cosy lights into the streets from which my young mind witnessed these fleeting tendrils of familial affection. As the inside of the house indicated a blaring flickering of a TV, my mind would also flicker at why, oh why I could not be allowed to celebrate Xmas because I was Muslim. It looked good. Felt good. Why could it not be a good thing for us Muslims I thought?
Slowly I grew older. And as I started to emerge from my second generation immigrant bubble to work in the City of London, I would look forward to Secret Santa and the office Xmas parties. I'd politely refuse all the alcohol - for which I was never admonished over by work colleagues. I was never made to feel unwelcome or a freak when I worked in PR. As a new graduate, I only experienced utter respect for being a Muslim working in the City of London - often at some of the world's global brands.
Even now I can remember my first corporate Xmas dinner. At the house of my first boss.
He was John Garnett. The sales and marketing director for IBM in Basingstoke. And my day-to-day manager. At the time I was selected out of thousands be on their graduate placement as part of my Business Studies degree. When I was invited to John's detached house, somewhere in the leafy shires, I was in shock. Yes - as it was his own house. With the entire team. I had to say yes although inwardly was freaking out. I recall his wonderful, svelte, glamorous wife was very kind and gracious. Such a fuss made over Muslim me. And it was there that I was first presented with baked trout with almonds - not curry. And introduced to St Clement's cocktail drink. Non-alcoholic with orange and lemon and based on the old English rhyme "Oranges & lemons, says the bells of St Clements'. I believe John and his wife spent a lot of time to make sure I would feel welcomed. Even a choc yule log slice was brought out for me - as the Xmas pudding that was served had brandy. A very sedate, warm, civil, quiet affair. Perfect for this immigrant British kid who was shaking under her long skirt as to how to deal with her first Xmas meal. Ah. John Garnett. Thank you for making me feel so special and showing me why I was right to yearn for Xmas. As it brought me towards kind non-Muslim folk - who were to go on and help better me as not just as a woman but as a person.
I often reminisce over getting my first proper Xmas present. Given to me by a lovely lady called Dee. A non-Muslim woman who gave me my first taste of kindness at Xmas. A right working class woman too who worked alongside me, the Saturday sales assistant in a Tooting men's shop in S.W London that had a shoe concession to match the men's suits they sold. Goodness I was so scared doing that job. But I needed the money at the age of 17. I spent most of my time frightened by the suited white men who would wink 'wotcha Yasmin'. Or say "allo allo dahhhlin". Wide boys. They were as puzzled by me as I was by them. Many had left school at 16 - yet there I was. An unfashionable frizzy haired rake of a girl. Studying three A Levels as I needed to get to University as per my father's decree. I had never mixed with men before. And so it was a baptism of fire.
Octopus hands had nothing on one man - who would cheerfully laugh as he caught me terrified while my skinny teen self was attempting to reach for shoe boxes on very high shelves. For each reach I'd make, often I would feel his hands do a quick run all over my waist before he chortled and chucked the box at me. What he did was of course unacceptable. But he confused the young woman in me as he was also a very kind man. He would teach me sales techniques. And I truly think he had no idea that I was simply terrified. I was a very typical shy girl. I would just stammer and run out. But in those days I was deemed fair game. And even though I was 17 and it was wrong, he was a very good manager to me. He had no idea I hated it. I never said. Not once. I should not have had to but I can see now in hindsight - he had only ever worked with women who he told me worshipped him. I saw it myself when women came in. I now understood why. He was 6 feet, blond and blue eyed and would always be laughing and joking. An utter charmer who would confide in me his worries, hatred for his area manager and his problems.
But back to Dee. Feisty, pint sized stout Dee would shoo my manager and all wide boys away saying "Oi, leave 'er you alone you bastards." And it was she who would call hug and call me 'ducky'. She was the first person outside my family to make me feel so special - and then she really did it one Xmas. All because she once gave me a Marks & Spencer nail polish gift set (as she said it's what all girls like) on my last shift before the holidays. Beautifully wrapped too.
I was so shocked and mortified as I told her apologetically I had not bought her a gift. Nor was I a member of her family but just a part time worker. So why on earth she got me a present puzzled me. She shot back with one line that made my jaws drop: "Cor - you don't give to receive Yasmin - that ain't what Xmas is about my girl!'. And off she disappeared home, waving a chirpy bye bye and hollering 'Merry Xmas Yasmin.' Never having had extended family or getting presents as a young girl, her words cut through me to make me think - wow. What a wonderful gesture. I spent a lot of time on the bus home mulling her words over. Nobody had ever told me what she had.
You see kind, loving Dee I realised had given me a new mantra that year. All because she practised 'this Xmas' which I was told was not what Muslims do. Yet her sentiment has stayed with me forever. And a mantra which I now know also very much echoes the true spirit of Islam. That was sadly never revealed or shown to me. To this day, when I give gifts to surprised recipients, cockney Dee's phrase always gets regurgitated. And one by one, as the decades roll by, I have watched and witnessed Xmas to be a special time in our British society, where others work so hard to help others feel special - under the banner of religion.Something I have rarely witnessed in my own backward community (except of course my beloved late father whom I talk about here). From the excellent Salvation Army to vicars and churches and community groups - even though it is in fact simply a cultural phenomena now. All of it happens because of Xmas. And only Xmas. And so I often think of little Dee. And am reminded how her gesture changed so much for me that day. And how time after time after time - it has always been non-Muslims who have helped, appreciated or personally shaped and mentored me.
It is with respect and love in my heart for all these people in my mind as well as the ones who suffer - that I drag out a little fibre optic tree now. And rather than dress it in traditional fare, I pick meaningful decorations that resonate for me. I have small figurines that remind me of the music and arts that come to life at this time of year. That by being born in the UK I am privileged to have experienced. My favourite are Gisela Graham decorations. I have a collection of her fine fairies and ladies playing musical instruments. All of which remind me Xmas has an array of meanings and that this seasons can be anything you want it to be.
I think of all the companies who invest in their workers. From the office decorations, parties, gifts and extras. Like the cold morning December winter air that results in a 10 minute chat about not just the weather but what the plans are for the festive season. All those water cooler moments - without even the water making an appearance.
I cannot deny though that the older I get, I find I am spiritually and completely aligned with Islam. I have always sought a rationale yet had no idea it would in fact be Islam - until I got to know the real Islam. A personal belief system which combines peace, love and inspiration to combat a greedy, corrupt society; a pathway of guidance that helps me evolve into a higher spiritual being; and a pragmatic approach that targets inequality, injustice and oppression and forces the distribution of wealth especially for the needy: sick, the poor, orphans and vulnerable women.
But I can also choose to respect others and their way of life. And so my Xmas as a Muslim is quite clear. They are not mutually exclusive. In no way does it dilute my faith. I do not worship the way Christians do - instead I simply appreciate and admire their choice to express their testament of faith during this season.
So I do say thank you UK. For allowing me to be a part of this special season which I know might see arguments, tears, drunkenness and excess. But also I see it as the chance for all families to gather, irrespective of faith, race, gender or creed. For humanity to show off its best side. For to celebrate and to still think of others can only be a good thing. Right?
So. 2014 Xmas. Come hither. Roll on. I will always love you.
And if you are still reading this. Enjoy the holidays. Be loved and made to feel special. Join in and be proud to show respect for a season that is a very special time across all ages and faiths. And if that means that I want to put up a tree - albeit one that is fibre optic to mark my appreciation for this festive time - then so be it.
Am now off to cook my Xmas 2014 dinner. A halal turkey with all the trimmings.
Methinks next year my seven year old self will continue to be in the driving seat. But this time with my new Muslim self. And with Briggs, Dickens, Islamic books and a roaring log fire in a cottage, plenty of marshmallows, good movies and Namaz prayers - will be the ideal Xmas 2015 I plan for my British Muslim self.
Merry Xmas
Yasmin Choudhury xx
For more musings as well as the numerous lives I lead as a social entrepreneur working in the developing world under Lovedesh and Amcariza, check out upcoming posts at my blogger site called Ms YasminIsYasmin as well as my YouTube Channel.

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