Embracing Differences

Navigating Christmas and other non-Muslim holidays

By Taskeen Khan

Nov/Dec 2023

The winter holidays are filled with emotion. They can be hectic — schools are closed, family is visiting, and the house is often full. But the season can also be full of joy. Starbucks is carrying your favorite peppermint mocha, you can finally go on vacation, and someone is always bringing cookies to the office. 

For Muslims, the holidays can have an added layer of complexity. From putting up a Christmas tree to reserving the light and decorations for Eid and Ramadan only, Muslim have found a variety of ways to navigate the holidays. 

Younas Ali is a life-long resident of the Minnesota suburbs. Growing up, his family didn’t celebrate Christmas; however, he still remembers the winter holidays as a time of excitement. His family would travel during the break, he would participate in the holiday-related arts and crafts at school and his neighborhood would always be decked out in beautiful lights. His family would send holiday wishes and desserts to his Christian cousin. Looking back, Ali never felt like he was missing out, for the season was always filled with fun, even if he wasn’t celebrating Christmas. 

Shifting Values

Insiya Syed’s family changed how they celebrated Christmas as she grew older. When she and her sisters were young, their parents wanted to make the holidays a fun time. Her family put up stockings, exchanged small gifts, and went out to see the lights. However, as the sisters got slightly older the festivities fizzled out, not only because everyone was growing up, but also because they no longer fit in with her family’s shifting religious values. And yet Syed never recalls feeling left out. She would still go caroling with her Girl Scout troop and enjoyed the lights, decor and festive spirit. 

Her family also began to decorate more for Eid and Ramadan, inspired by a desire to increase the holiday feel of these special occasions and because appropriate décor was no longer so hard to find. Today, Syed doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but she has maintained the tradition of making Eid and Ramadan a special, festive time.

Even as a young child, Deniz Namik grew up knowing that Christmas wasn’t one of the traditions and holidays her family celebrated. Her mother wanted to ensure that her family kept sight of their own traditions and holidays, so lights, elves and anything Christmas-themed never entered the house. School was her only exposure to the holiday, although she still developed a love for Christmas movies. 

Namik has observed her younger sister, who is still in elementary school, grow up in the same environment. Although her little sister absolutely loves the holiday, Namik has watched her grow into someone who can differentiate what holidays she and her family celebrate while also appreciating those of other families and cultures. 

Christmas was absent from Sara Raja’s childhood. While she was growing up, it was clear that participating in non-Muslim religious practices was strictly forbidden. Although she was allowed to enjoy hot chocolate and a candy cane at school, she knew that Christmas would forever remain outside her home. Going to a public elementary school, she sometimes felt left out and wanted to join in the festivities. But Raja explained that as she grew older and more secure in her Muslim identity, this faded away. 

As a parent, Raja is following in her parents’ footsteps. While Christmas and non-Muslim holidays aren’t celebrated in her house, she does make Eid and Ramadan exciting times for her little one, a time filled with decorations and activities. As her daughter grows up, she plans to focus on connecting her to her Muslim identity by immersing her in the mosque and Muslim youth groups. By fostering pride and excitement in their faith and community, Raja hopes that her own children will feel secure, even if they are not joining in their fellow students’ holidays. 

A licensed professional counselor, Raja suggests that parents worried about navigating the holidays should “foster a healthy line of communication with children, so that when/if their child is struggling, he/she feels comfortable enough to come to them.” 

Books and Resources

The worry that children will feel excluded during the holidays is not uncommon. Aisha Dawood wrote “Yusuf and Yusra’s Merry Dilemma” (2023) to address this very concern. She remembers feeling fascinated by Halloween as a child and wanting to be part of it. This inspired her to write the three-book “Yusuf and Yusra’s Holiday Dilemma” series, which focus on Christmas, Halloween, and Hanukkah. Her intention is to show Muslim children that their mixed feelings about the holidays are valid and that not all children celebrate these holidays. 

These books emphasize that even if you’re not celebrating a holiday, you can still enjoy the time off by spending time with friends and family. Dawood’s books not only provide enjoyable alternatives, like youth nights at the masjid, but also educate readers about other faith communities’ celebrations. 

It’s not just Muslim parents who are trying to address this issue. From universities to TV shows, the holiday hoopla has become an increasingly prevalent topic. The Michigan State University Extension has developed a set of guidelines to help parents teach their children about holidays and beliefs other than their own. The guidelines emphasize that people can learn about and respect someone else’s holidays without celebrating them. 

Sesame Street, a show that many of us can remember growing up with, has an episode in which children share the different holidays they celebrate during the winter, including Ramadan, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah. Even PBS had an article on navigating the “December Dilemma” (2015). These resources are not just for parents and teachers, but for anyone who wants to better understand how to appreciate a holiday without feeling pressured to conform.

Speaking with these families provides a snapshot of the many ways Muslims navigate Christmas and other holidays. While some have incorporated various elements of Christmas into their own celebrations, others have created clear boundaries. As we move forward, let’s work to create an environment that enables us to respect the many ways Muslims deal with the holidays, because there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

Taskeen Khan has a bachelor’s degree in integrative biology and a minor in sustainability,

energy, and the environment from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is

passionate about science, communication and research.

Tell us what you thought by joining our Facebook community. You can also send comments and story pitches to horizons@isna.net. Islamic Horizons does not publish unsolicited material.