My First Muslim Christmas

For our family's first December in Canada, my parents arranged a special surprise from Santa.

I was four years old in 1993, when my family emigrated from the United Arab Emirates to Toronto. Young enough to be changed by my new home, but old enough to know I was different from everyone around me.

I was the only Arab and only Muslim in my junior kindergarten class at McKee Public School in suburban Toronto. No one else had a name like mine, and no one else spoke Arabic (my English back then was rudimentary at best). Beyond those obvious differences, Canadian life proved to be quite distinct in other ways. After recovering from the shock of experiencing the teeth-chattering cold and waist-deep deluges of snow of my first Canadian winter, I discovered another surprise that December.

Overnight, everything was suddenly covered in red and green. Storefronts were decorated with string lights wrapped around pines and firs, mall speakers echoed songs about a red-nosed reindeer named Rudolph, and my classmates chattered excitedly about gingerbread cookies and what gifts they’d asked Santa for that Christmas.

At some point, I must have asked myself, What is Christmas? There’s nothing quite like it in the Muslim world. The closest comparison might be Eid al-Adha, which translates from Arabic to “Festival of Sacrifice.” It’s a commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to obey God’s command to kill his own son until God intervened with a ram to sacrifice instead. Not quite as fun and festive as the story behind Christmas, is it?

While both holidays embody the same essence of sharing with the less fortunate and spending time with loved ones, Eid meant new clothes and a family dinner, and that was about it. No tree adorned with whimsical ornaments, no yule log cakes or eggnog, and no gifts covered in wrapping paper destined to become colourful debris scattered on our living room floor.

Christmas was completely foreign to me, but when you live in a country like Canada, it’s so infused in the culture that you inevitably learn everything there is to know about it. Once the holidays came around, the plots of my Saturday morning cartoons revolved around Santa and the Grinch, and I watched classics like Home Alone and A Charlie Brown Christmas. I couldn’t possibly have articulated it back then, but I was keenly aware that this Christmas stuff that had my classmates and the kids on TV so giddy had nothing to do with me. It was something “Canadians” and “Christians” did, and I was neither.

But then my parents unexpectedly informed my younger brother, Anis, and I that Santa would be paying us a visit on Christmas Eve. “But aren’t we Muslim?” I asked.

“Yes, but Santa loves all children equally and gets them all gifts,” my mother replied.

So on that first Christmas Eve in Canada, she hung oversized red and white stockings, each one customized with our names in our favourite colours, off our bedposts. I have a distinct memory of the restless anticipation that kept me awake long after bedtime and my elation when I got up on Christmas morning to find my stocking filled to the brim. And Santa knew exactly what Anis and I liked: I got my favourite candy, Smarties, and stacks of Pogs (any fellow millennials remember those?). My brother got Playmobil sets and toy sharks, his two childhood passions.

Still in our pyjamas, we ran over to the kitchen to tell our parents that Santa had indeed visited us last night. We asked if they’d seen him, and Mom said, “Of course!” We didn’t have a chimney, so instead, Santa’s sleigh and flying reindeer landed on our snow-covered sixth-floor balcony. Mom then offered Santa a cup of black Turkish coffee, as is the Arab custom when hosting guests. He needed the energy for the long night ahead, she told us. When I returned to school after the holidays, I had a story to share with my classmates. Santa had visited me too! I could show off my own gifts while other kids showed off theirs.

My parents kept our little Christmas tradition going for years, until my brother and I were too old to believe in Santa anymore. I never asked them why they went through all that bother, but I suspect they did it so we could feel like we belonged in our new country. Creating a sense of belonging is a funny thing. You can’t force yourself to belong somewhere. That belonging comes from a change within you, from a willingness to be part of something.

As an adult, I’ve come to realize that the most important part of belonging is joining in traditions. The specifics of Christmas, from Jesus to Santa, are all irrelevant in a sense. What matters is that Christmas gives us an excuse to bring people together to share in the love that unites us. So perhaps, when I have kids of my own one day, I’ll resurrect the family tradition and invite Santa over for a cup of coffee before he leaves my kids something special in their stockings.

Next, check out these heartwarming photos of Canadian Christmas traditions across the country.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada