By contributor Farida El Sheshing

Back home, my family and I have always celebrated Christmas. I never asked why, but I often wondered. We would buy a foldable, plastic Christmas tree and spend days decorating it with whatever we came across, along with many colourful lights. After years of storing and reusing it, we would replace the tree just to keep it looking as decent as any Christian would want it to look. Growing up as a Muslim, my parents taught me to respect others, regardless of their identity. There is a popular verse in the Qur’an in Islam that says, “You have your religion and I have mine” [109:6]. Islam teaches us tolerance through those powerful words that in essence mean, “To each his own.” This verse is something that I grew up with, and I apply it to my daily life as part of practicing my religion. That is why I never asked why I celebrate Christmas. It is also why I will always love and respect this holiday as part of who I am as a person, even though I do not feel closely connected to it as many people around me probably do.

1419146046960My elementary school was owned by a Coptic Christian man, and was located in an area where there were many Christian families. Consequently, I grew up having many Christian friends. Even though the Copts in Egypt are the biggest Christian community in the Middle East, Egypt remains predominantly Muslim. In classes where we studied religion, the teacher would split us up according to Muslim and Christian faith, and each group would go to a different class and learn about their own religion. It wasn’t done in any degrading or empowering way; it was just different topics that we had to cover for class. We would finish our English class, and head on to our religion class separately. After that, we would all meet in the playground and play “boys catch girls,” or a game of tag or basketball. We never spoke a word about our religion classes to each other, simply because we knew it wasn’t any of our business. I, for one, knew that my friends were the best  part of my day. Some of them were bullies, but some of them gave me candy every day. I never once pointed at the bullies  and said, “That’s because you’re Christian!” or looked at the lollipop that my friend gave me and said, “It must be a Christian thing.”

By the time I graduated and moved on to university, I realized there was no point in celebrating Christmas as it wasn’t such a huge part of my life anymore—especially given the fact that we never even exchanged gifts. I reflected on that thought for a while and decided to learn more. I always loved the way Christians in my life were curious about Islam and how they participated in our religious celebrations and traditions, including our fast during Ramadan. Some of my friends and my mom’s friends would actually fast with us, from sunrise to sunset, just to show love and respect towards our beliefs. It was only fair for me to be as inquisitive and open as they were. So one time I decided to call my friend, Raymonda, and ask if I  ould come over. I wanted to see what Christmas was all about at her house. I went over to her place for lunch, and that afternoon I saw their tree. It was the most delightful thing I had seen in a long time. It was a real tree, so vibrant and fully decorated with gifts lying all around it. Their tree took up the whole living room space, whereas mine barely reached the TV frame. I wanted to know more.

“So do you actually believe in Santa Claus?” I politely asked.

“Farida, Santa is real. No, I’m just kidding. You know how your parents convinced you that the tooth fairy put money under your pillow every time you lost a tooth? That’s exactly like it,” she said.

We continued to laugh and talk about fasting and its many different rules. Raymonda promised to fast with me one day the following year, and I promised to fast with her later that year. I jokingly asked her to give praise to Prophet Mohamed, not expecting her to respond as it is not part of her religion, and she immediately replied, “Peace Be Upon Him.” It warmed my heart.

It wasn’t until I came to Canada that I actually had a taste of what it was like to celebrate Christmas. With a few weeks left before Christmas break, everybody was busy doing their own thing. Some of my teammates invited me over for dinner just a week before I went home for the holidays. I went empty-handed, not knowing what to bring or do on such an occasion. I didn’t expect it to be a big deal at all, until I showed up to their doorstep. I knocked on the door, and one of the girls greeted me with such happiness and excitement; it instantly put me in a good mood. She didn’t wait until I took off my jacket and my scarf to tell me to have a seat and close my eyes. Before I did, I caught a glimpse of their little Christmas tree settled on a stool by the window, lighting up the place. I closed my eyes, and she grabbed something off the ground and placed it in my hands.

She gave me a present. It was the most emotional moment of my whole year. I was laughing and crying simultaneously. I felt like a five-year-old again, ripping the gift wrap off of my new blanket given to me out of sheer love. I still hold on to this moment and remember it every time I go to bed. I felt so loved, appreciated, and accepted; I fell in love with Christmas
again, only this time, I could wholeheartedly call it my own.