I have a vivid memory from a time in middle school when I begged my parents to let me partake in our school’s annual Christmas celebrations. Every year, classes were canceled on the last Friday before winter break and all the students would be ushered to the school gymnasium to listen to Christmas music, have some snacks, and watch the drama students from the nearby high school conduct a performance of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol.” My parents had asked the school to grant me an excuse of absence and allow me to stay home. When I protested, my father told me something that I wouldn’t understand until I was older: “Christmas is celebrated by people whose religion says that a prophet is God. If you take part, you’re opposing your faith. If you deny that origin, you’re changing theirs.”
Christmas remains one of the most important days of the Christian calendar. On this day, members of the Christian faith from across the globe are united in their commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Even as one joins the Christian community in marking Christmas, it is important to acknowledge how this day is quickly losing its religious roots and increasingly becoming secular. Essentially, Christmas has been overtaken by commercial interests that are keen on maximizing profits as opposed to supporting the values and beliefs of Christian believers.
To acquire a clear understanding of secularization, it is important to define this concept. According to Taft (2015), secularization can be viewed as a gradual yet significant change in religious heritage where worldly influences erode the religious elements of traditions that communities have practiced for years. For example, among Christians, Christmas has historically offered an opportunity for believers to come together in places of worship. While many believers continue to congregate in churches for Christmas, it has been observed that church attendance is falling sharply. For example, in the US, a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center (2017) established that for a larger share of the American public, Christmas is not necessarily regarded as a Christian event. Reporting for Gallup, one of the most credible polling agencies in the US, Hrynowski (2019) agreed that Christmas no longer carries the religious significance that it held for Americans in past years. According to Hrynowski, a meager 35% of Americans polled described Christmas as a celebration that is properly and deeply rooted in their Christian faith.
While Muslims living in the West understandably have little to no say regarding the secularization of Christmas, it’s unbefitting that we partake in this desecration of a religious tradition so that we can feel better about celebrating it. While many people today regularly mock slogans such as “War on Christmas” and “Keep Christ in Christmas,” they may have a bit of merit, regardless of the track history of the ones chanting them. Yes, American evangelicals have done horrible things, but Christmas isn’t exclusive to them. Christmas, as a Christian tradition, is taken very seriously by Christians in Central America, South America, Africa, the Middle East, and many East Asian countries as well.
No matter how hard you try to rationalize it, you can’t strip Christmas of its Christian roots, even in the context of Thanksgiving or Halloween. It just isn’t the same. While Thanksgiving and Halloween may also have Christian connotations, they notably don’t have a direct reference to Jesus Christ himself. No matter how much Muslims may try to convince themselves that Christmas in contemporary society is secular, you can’t fully do so when you have the word “Christ” right in the title. Not to mention that it’s blatantly disrespectful and can be considered an attack on the faith. Allah says in the Qur’an:
Do not insult what they invoke besides Allah… (6:108)
In this ayah, Muslims are explicitly warned against insulting other religions, and regardless of what you may intend, trying to secularize religious traditions is a massive insult to those who closely adhere to those religions. As a Muslim, I would be extremely offended at any attempt by outsiders trying to secularize Eid, for example. If a non-Muslim wants to celebrate Eid, that’s fine. However, it has to be in line with Muslim guidelines, because it’s a Muslim holiday. I would not want someone coming on Eid Al-Adha and saying that Eid to them represents how Abraham was a schizophrenic who thought God was speaking to him, but he managed to overcome those difficulties and live happily with his son in spite of his mental illness.
Christmas should be restored to its original form. I believe that it should be stripped of the many commercial and secular influences so that it can revert to helping Christian believers to better connect with their faith. I understand that in regions such as Africa, South America, and Central America, Christianity has been widely accepted and is practiced by millions. The commercialization of Christmas, therefore, cheapens the faith that many hold dear. I would feel insulted if the traditions of my Islamic faith were to be watered down by worldly forces. As Muslims, we approach our holiday with the respect that it deserves. I feel that Christmas should be accorded a similar level of reverence.
Christmas remains one of the most important holidays for those celebrating it, regardless of their faith. However, an honest look at how Christmas is practiced today reveals that it no longer serves its initial purpose. Retailers are among the culprits that should be blamed for the corruption that Christmas has suffered. The future of this holiday as a religious commemoration is certainly in question. As an increasing number of Americans abandon religion and identify as non-religious, the Christian underpinnings of Christmas could be lost. Be that as it may, Muslims should have no part in this desanctification, both out of respect for the Christian religious tradition and out of defensiveness for our own religious traditions, which would naturally be the next target.
Hrynowski, Z. (2019). More Americans celebrating a secular Christmas. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/272378/americans-celebrating-secular-christmas.aspx
Pew Research Center. (2017). Americans say religious aspects of Christmas are declining in public life. https://www.pewforum.org/2017/12/12/americans-say-religious-aspects-of-christmas-are-declining-in-public-life/
Taft, J. (2015). Disenchanted religion and secular enchantment in a Christmas Carol. Victorian Literature and Culture, 43(4), 659-73.
Photo Credit: Photo by Lionello DelPiccolo
About the Author: Huthaifa Shqeirat is a Podcast Producer at Yaqeen Institute and a student at Qalam Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @Shack_Rat.