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Disembodied Christmas

December 26, 2020

‘I don’t celebrate Christmas’ sounds overly harsh to my ears, a little too Scrooge-like for an occasion that celebrates family, connectedness, sharing of presents and feasts, cracker jokes and prayers. What’s not to celebrate? For me, I simply did not grow-up with Christmas, first in Baghdad, then in London but within a diaspora bubble. 

My first experience of a British (English) Christmas was at the ripe age of 22 years, when a generous university friend invited me to their family home for the occasion. My friend’s parents refused to accept that I would spend Christmas alone- I did not have any family in the UK at the time- and insisted that they adopt me for the holiday period. I remember feeling particularly foreign and alien to the tradition, which I was vaguely familiar in a ‘I’ve read about this’ or ‘I think I’ve seen this in a film’ type way. I felt a little like I’ve stepped into an odd reversed National Geographic experience, where I am observing white English people in their natural environment, following their unique customs and rituals… having said that, I’d been to Midnight Mass with a different university friend before that, and was perplexed and saddened that they kept their Christian practice hidden from our social group (predominantly English, UK born and bred), for fear of becoming the subject of jokes. I openly fasted in Ramadan- though the main response for this was silence- I was confused as to the open hostility of Christians practising their faith, but all unanimously celebrating Christmas… it’s like Christmas has been sieved of it’s Godly message to be a safe shell of presents, food and fun with the family. 

Even though I’m proudly British now, these customs remain alien to me. When such nuances come into a discussion, I find myself feeling like a polite guest being hosted by people of a different culture. My understanding remains, often, superficial, disembodied, lacking the visceral memories that help understanding penetrate on a deeper level.

I wonder, this year, if the core of the ritual has come to life more for many. As the threat of ‘Christmas being Cancelled’ becomes a reality, I find that whether a family has chosen to take the risk to be together (at any cost) or has agreed to stay in their own bubbles, something of the essence of Christmas has surfaced. Whilst on the one hand, Zoom family gatherings can seem disembodied, I’ve heard many make peace with the quiet, cocooning of immediate family, or the reflective sides of solitude. There seems to be more awareness of who is spending Christmas alone, and people reaching out to check-up on friends, loved ones to see how they will be in this time. I find this deeply touching. 

In my heart, I feel a shot of sadness, as I accept that my children’s childhood will feature Father Christmas, lights, a decorated tree and presents for this time of the year, whilst the traditions I grew-up with, will remain alien, clearly marked by the difference between their different norms at nursery/ school and our home. I think of my Christian Iraqi friends and their families, whose minority experience I had not considered (sitting in the privileged majority position!), until I myself became a minority. I wonder how they might have felt, when Eid was a giant explosion of colour, feasts, new clothes parading to visit friends and families, and their Christmas was a smaller event, still celebrated, though on a smaller scale. My brother’s first sighting of Santa, in a hotel in Baghdad in the 1980’s, resulted in a fearful explosion of tears, as he clung to my mother, desperately screamed to all around him that this is the ‘Big Bad Wolf!’

Accepting my children’s dominant language, cultural references and ways-of-being in the world as fundamentally different to my own childhood’s is a reality that I continue to make peace with. I hope to celebrate the essence of all of these traditions from celebrating Jesus the Son of Mary, the love, acceptance and peace he had offered to the world… at their essence, these stories intend to keep us together, to help connect us to one another, as well as to our inner well of strength, patience and security. 

Wishing everyone a peaceful, restful and quietly joyful Christmas… 

From → Community, Random

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