Growing up, nothing made me feel more alienated than Christmas. All the colorful lights and magically cheerful music — it was as if Christians were rubbing their holiday in my face. Being a six-year-old Muslim kid during the holiday season was torture. I just couldn’t understand why we didn’t celebrate Christmas. It just didn’t seem fair. Everyone at school were having so much fun bragging about the gifts Santa Claus was going to leave under their big Christmas trees. I would sit alone wondering why my family didn’t have a Christmas tree.
The year before, when I was five, we celebrated Christmas. We had decorations around the apartment and a tree with gifts underneath it. We even held Christmas parties. I asked my mother why we didn’t have a Christmas tree this year. She explained that because we were Muslims, we could not celebrate Christmas anymore. Christmas was not our holiday. My six-year-old mind could not understand why it was a problem now when the year before it wasn’t.
But the year before, my Puerto Rican mother wasn’t a Muslim. When she married my Muslim Egyptian father a year before I was born, she was a Catholic. Living with my Muslim dad and spending time with his family exposed her to Islam, eventually influencing her decision to convert. I was raised Muslim from the get go, but when my mom finally converted Christmas was closed.
For my mother, and I think for most Muslims living in the West, not celebrating Christmas becomes an important part of who we are. It’s a way of preserving your religious identity. At six I could care less. The joy I would feel on Christmas morning would no longer exist. Something so sweet and innocent was being taken away from me. The worst part was for a whole month out of every year, on television and the radio, in shops and at school, I would constantly be reminded of what I was missing out on.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, our teacher would read us stories about Santa Claus. She would tell us how Santa would fly all over the earth in one night and give gifts to all the world’s children… All the good children that is.
Even at six I knew that most of the world’s children weren’t Christian, but my teacher made it seem like Santa didn’t discriminate. He was an equal opportunity gifter. She never said he would only give gifts to the Christian children. The teacher didn’t say anything about Jesus. Santa seemed to be the main star in this holiday. “What gives?” I thought. I was a pretty good boy this year. I acted much the same as I did last year. Surely, I was going to get presents this year? My mom didn’t know what she was talking about. She had it all wrong.
The week before Christmas break I was so confident that I was going to get gifts from Santa, no matter what my mom said. When the teacher told us to write our wish list to the big guy in the North Pole, I was more than delighted. (I can’t recall what I wanted, maybe a Space Jam toy.) After we wrote our letters, the teacher collected them in a red sack and assured us that they would be mailed to Santa’s workshop and that he would read them personally. When she said that, I was as confident as ever. Santa was obliged to give me at least one gift, I thought, tree or no tree.
The day before Christmas break even more assured. Santa himself came to visit our school. What surreal sight he was. I was completely floored. How could any six-year-old prepare for such an occasion? It was nerve racking. The entire class room was in a frenzy of anticipation. Santa was visiting each class and we were next. I could hear the kids screaming in the next room. Then came a knock on our classroom door. All the kids rushed out of their seats to greet him. The teacher frantically tried to quell the swarm of first graders to no avail. I tried to get close to the big guy in red. I wasn’t the tallest nor the strongest so pushing and shoving did not get me far.
Yet, even from where I stood in the back of the mob, Santa didn’t look as magical as he did on TV or in books. His suit was baggy and his beard was obviously a fake. This Santa was an imposter. All the other kids seemed to want to believe he was the real deal but I wasn’t having it. The imposter started handing out candy canes to everyone but I headed back to my seat. I didn’t want anything from this sham Kris Kringle.
On Christmas eve, I went to bed assured that I would find gifts galore. I wouldn’t let that faux Santa damper my spirits. We didn’t have a tree but I didn’t think that would matter. Santa would leave me something for sure. I even left the guy milk and cookies just like the books said I should. My parents offered no objections. I thought that was a good sign.
I woke up in the morning and rushed into the living room. There was an empty cup of milk waiting for me, a half eaten cookie but not one goddamn gift. I was in shock. Santa had the audacity to eat my cookies and drink my milk and not leave even one gift. I was in tears. Did I do something wrong? At least the bad kids get a lump of coal. I got squat. I ran into my parent’s room to explain the travesty that I had just been victim to.
My mom, half asleep gently explained once more that Muslim kids don’t get gifts. I didn’t understand. They told me at school that Santa gives gifts to all the good children of the world. I was good all year and if I wasn’t I would have got a big lump of coal. It just didn’t make sense. Then it hit me. Santa Claus hates Muslims. He really hates us to eat our food and not even leave a gift.
Even now I still remember the immense feeling of disappointment I had as a kid. It felt so unjust to be deprived of something that I felt I had a right to. It was hard to accept that just because I was a Muslim, Santa would discriminate against me. They never said anything about that in the Christmas songs or at school. The sight of those Coca-Cola bottles with a jolly Saint Nick on them was repulsive to me after that. Santa was a bigot. How could I drink something that he endorsed? I switched to Pepsi.
As I got older, with each passing Christmas my resentment grew. I not only resented Santa but my religion as well. I couldn’t stand my religion keeping me from benefiting from a holiday I so badly wanted to be a part of. Christmas became another reminder that I was different, that I was the other.
I tried to turn away from that sense of otherness but as I’ve gotten older it is something I have come to embrace. My religion is not all that defines me but it’s an important part of who I am. I learned along the way that Santa Claus doesn’t hate Muslims because the truth is he doesn’t exist. I don’t get why my mom didn’t straight up tell me he wasn’t real, but I assume she wanted to maintain some level childhood innocence. I have made peace with it and with myself. Yet I still have this yearning for Christmas that I can’t shake off. When December rolls around I find myself hoping that maybe, just maybe, I will be waking up Christmas morning to the sight of Santa’s gifts waiting for me to unwrap.
Amir Khafagy is a self-described “Arab-Rican” New Yorker, born and raised. A political activist, organizer, writer, performer and spoken word artist, Amir is currently pursuing a masters degree in Urban Affairs at Queens College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Rachel Gardner.