A Christmas Conundrum


Last night I sat with my grandmother as she flipped through the TV channels, until a Christmas segment caught her eye. She halted at DMC, a local ‘general entertainment’ and news channel. Although not evidently in cahoots with the State, one needn’t really confirm that in Egypt. (Surviving) independent channels toe the State line regardless. If they really want to thrive, they’ll accommodate its propaganda.

“We already celebrate this time of year,” expressed the hijabi girl to her interviewer. Since I relay this to you as a rough translation, an italicized word means it was said verbatim, in English.

“It’s the new year and we already appreciate going out with family and taking pictures with the decorations. It’s not just Christmas, we like celebrating the new year in general,” the girl proceeded to pepper her Arabic, which is not uncommon for someone of her social standing, or people who want to be in it.

They cut to another interview with a bystander, another girl in a headscarf.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim or a Christian. We’re all the same. It’s only natural that we celebrate together.”

The interviewer (also a hijabi) then asked her: “What are your favorite Christmas spots?”

I could not properly decipher her response over the rant my grandmother started to give on how the interviewers seemed to be only interested in Muslims, and not just any Muslims, visible ones. Girls in headscarves, all of them. The only two exceptions still had hijabi girls standing next to them, like props.

Chances are you’re wondering what my issue is with Christmas. Why can’t people celebrate things? Why must we be backwards barbarians, extremists, party poopers, cynical about the phenomenon of people having a good time?

The truth is, I have no beef with Christmas. Rather, I think it should be sacralized, so much so that I write this.

What I do take issue with is claims of having respect and wanting unity with people of other faiths, and —in the same breath— accusations against others of not sharing these sentiments when they abstain from Christmas celebrations.

The segment aired on the 28th (at least that’s when we caught it), a good 10 days before the actual Christmas ceremony in Egypt. No wonder no Copts were interviewed, their celebration doesn’t start until the 7th of January.

In the meantime, they fast. They might buy new clothes in preparation for Christmas day and, if they’ve adopted the tradition, decorate their evergreens. When they finally observe the end of their fast, they will attend Christmas Mass. They will commence their festival by indulging in poultry, eggs and beef once again. Many will enjoy major festival foods like kahk and fattah. Kids will receive gifts, in the form of cash or old-fashioned presents.

By the logic of tree-decorating, noel-singing, Secret-Santa-having Muslim Egyptians, they should be participating in the festivities of Coptic Christmas as well. Yet they don’t. Why the cherry picking? Why not fast in solidarity for 43 days prior? Try out the vegetarian thing?

They don’t because their actions are not motivated out of respect for the Christian tradition or their Coptic brethren (no matter how much they claim otherwise).

The real intention? Nothing meaningful. Self-indulgence, perhaps. After all, Christmas sells, it sells big time. Gingerbread lattes, sugar cookies, gift-wrappers, presents, holiday cards, Santa hats, along with every other Western-imported goodie. It’s a relief that milk punch hasn’t made it to their pseudo-festivities (yet).

The claim to interfaith respect is a façade, something to help the State paint the illusion of a dichotomy between Christmas-celebrating, accepting Muslims, and abstaining, Christian-hating ones.

In the midst of all the commercializing Christmas has suffered in the West and now globally, those who take religion seriously still sit down to contemplate whether it would be valid for them to partake. They still wonder where their lines should be drawn, and how they can help, or greet, their Christian neighbors without compromising their own beliefs.

They do this because they are of the few who remain aware that the celebrations are, first and foremost, religious in nature and carry theological implications. They’re willing to refrain from the temptations of a capitalized season and be rigorous in their conduct, true to their God, and not rob others of the spiritual meaning behind their joy and the labor of their fast.

“We talk much about respecting this or that person’s religion; but the way to respect a religion is to treat it as a religion: to ask what are its tenets and what are their consequences. But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance.”

— G.K. Chesterton, Mormonism, 1920

About the Author: Mariam Ehab is a pharmacy and biotech student living in Egypt. Her interests include literature, ethics, and social theory. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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