By Farhan Husain for The Long Island Report
Christmas is turning into a cultural holiday for some Muslims in the Long Island area as they mark the occasion with gifts, decorations, and family get-togethers.
“Growing up, we did have a Christmas tree… I think just because he [dad] didn’t want us to feel left out,” said student Asra Arif, 20, from Deer Park.
Indeed, it’s becoming almost a custom to celebrate Christmas for most Muslim-Americans. Many came from countries that don’t even have a word for “Christmas” but it becomes almost inevitable to join in with friends and neighbors who go “holiday-crazy” during this time of year.
“It’s really just celebrating the season. It’s the only time of the year where families don’t have work or anything like that,” Arif said.
Arif is a first-generation Muslim-American with Pakistani parents. Her family, like many others, has made it a tradition to gather with loved ones and exchange gifts during Christmas time.
However, unlike Christian and Catholic families who celebrate the birth of Christ every Dec. 25, Arif’s family celebrates the atmosphere of the holidays. “I just enjoy the spirit of it. I’m not celebrating anything religious, just being with family…” Arif said.
Retail manager Dafina Mexhuani, 21, from Westbury, does the same. “It’ll be celebrating to the extent of, not really Christmas… but you know like the whole decorating, and the gift giving, and all that stuff. But if you call that celebrating it, then I guess I am,” she said.
She celebrates a holiday with her family every year around Christmas time, but doesn’t call it Christmas. “I grew up in an apartment building and my dad was the super. We always used to put up a tree in the lobby, and so we started doing it in my house. It’s just how it’s always been, really,” she said.
Mexhuani was born in the Bronx and her family of three siblings and her parents were born and raised in Albania. She’s never experienced a year without Christmas.
“The idea of Christmas we just think of generally as a winter holiday, so we don’t necessarily celebrate it… or have a significant religious attachment to it,” said Mehreen Syeda 27, from New Hyde Park, Long Island.
Syeda will be celebrating the holiday season with her Pakistani-American family, because it’s the only time of the year where everyone is off from work. Though she was not born or raised in the U.S., Syeda and her family wrapped and exchanged presents, solely to be part of something that was happening culturally around them.
“I think it’s important for kids to be knowing what their friends are going to be doing, and why they’re doing what they’re doing,” she said when describing how she was going to handle the holiday season with her children. Syeda said she would never steer her children away from experiencing it, though she would draw a fine line between religion and culture.
Some Muslims dislike the idea of celebrating Christmas as the “holiday season.” Things like Christmas trees and stocking stuffers tend to be associated with Christmas, so some choose to avoid those all together while still pleasing their children.
“We do give gifts and stuff, but we don’t have a tree or any of that up… It’s not a Muslim holiday, therefore, we don’t celebrate it,” said student Armend Cobovic, 19, from Manhattan. Cobovic and his family are from Montenegro and knew about Christmas before they moved here 15 years ago, but he was surprised to see that other Muslim-Americans celebrate Christmas.
“I think they [Muslim-Americans] are stuck into society nowadays instead of going back to their own culture,” he said. Thought he doesn’t celebrate Christmas, he does exchange gifts during the holidays for another reason, “I understand getting a present, just so your child isn’t left out… but say it’s for new year.”
With New Year’s and other religious holidays around the end of December, it makes it the only time families get to spend time with each other.
Musho Kolenovic, 18, from Stony Brook, always gets together with his family in their upstate house during Christmas time. “It’s one of the few times in the year where everyone has off, and we can meet up, and just have good old family time,” Kolenovic said.
His family does exchange gifts during this time of the year, but they never call it “celebrating Christmas” because they never put up lights or a tree. “I’ll take the presents over the tree anytime.”
Whether they call it Christmas or not, the family time, gifts for children, and the spirit of the holidays gets the better of Muslim-Americans because of the American culture.
“Not that my parents are opposed to it, I think their culture is different. They aren’t used to celebrations like we are,” said student Sameera Namazi, 21, Valley Stream. Culture in America has adopted Christmas as part of being American, and Sameera had no issue with it, “Muslims do believe in Jesus, we can commemorate his birth… So if we want to, we can.”