My Muslim Family's Christmas Traditions Helped Me Embrace My Heritage

The holidays are an important time of year for families that celebrate across the United States. It's a time for remembering the past year, exchanging gifts, and of course, celebrating the birth of Jesus, if you practice. But it's always been an interesting time of year for me as a Muslim-American. Like Christians, Muslims believe that Jesus is an important prophet, but we typically don't celebrate the birth of prophets. But my family and I have celebrated Christmas the traditional American way for as long as I can remember.

Growing up, my family and I stuck out in our predominantly white and Christian community, especially in a post-9/11 society. I faced many questions and dealt with prejudice from the kids at school, who would ask me why they never saw me at church on Sundays or why I didn't eat marshmallows. And I had questions of my own, like why they wouldn't fast during Ramadan. But the holiday season was the one time of year I never felt different from my Christian friends. Like most other families, we would always put up a tree, decorate the house with pretty lights, watch Christmas movies, leave cookies for Santa, exchange gifts, and throw a massive Christmas party. Christmas is just as important for me and my family as it is for anyone else.

Though my parents grew up in Bangladesh, they both celebrated Christmas because they both attended Catholic schools. However, their celebrations then were smaller in scale as compared to the celebration in the U.S. Their Christmas traditions eventually evolved when they immigrated to the United States, but evolved even more so after I was born. They both wanted me to experience the joy of the holiday season and never wanted me to feel more isolated from our community than we already were. They never wanted me to feel like I was unable to participate in the holiday festivities and activities at school because of our religious beliefs.

I never questioned the reasoning behind their decision when I was young; I enjoyed frosting holiday cookies and sneaking around the house Christmas Eve to catch a glimpse of Santa in action. But as I grew older and I really started work through understanding myself and my identity, the holiday season felt more like a phony attempt to blend in and assimilate with everyone else. Like many children of immigrants, I struggled with my identity and my understanding of what it meant to be an American. For my Bengali family members, I'm too American and not in touch with my culture. But with my American friends, I'm too "foreign" — even though I was born here. Similarly, I'm too Muslim to my Christian friends, but I'm not Muslim enough for my family or the Muslim community. I struggled to find that balance and especially felt that pressure around the holidays.

I began to feel like an imposter, trying to celebrate a holiday that never felt like mine to celebrate. But my parents have always showered me with support and love, especially over the holidays, and made sure I never gave into those doubts. And my parents made every effort to show me that both identities could exist side by side. They blended the typical Christmas traditions, like getting two trees for us to decorate while blasting Christmas carols and buying thousands of lights for us to put up and try to defeat the neighbors for the award of best decorated house, with our own like making delicious lamb and chicken biriyani for Christmas dinner and leaving Bengali sweets out for Santa instead of cookies. They didn't have to make Christmas a big deal the way they did — many of my cousins never really celebrated growing up — but they did it to show me that religious celebrations can be shared by everyone, no matter if you practice.

The thing that I've come to understand about the holiday season is that it's an opportunity for us to see that we all have more commonalities than we do differences — we all take this time to reflect over the past year and appreciate the important people in our lives that stick with us through the good, the bad, and the ugly. There's so much more to a community and a religion beyond the media perception and stereotypes, and the holidays provide an ideal opportunity to bring people together to learn about one another. I've gotten the opportunity to learn more about my friends and other communities through celebrating Christmas, Holi (the Hindu festival of colors), Easter, and Iftar (the meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan) together throughout the year. I truly believe the holiday season can be used to not only celebrate with our families, but to embrace the diversity in our communities and celebrate togetherness. My parent's traditions during the holidays taught me to be more open and embrace my American and Bengali roots, and I can't wait to share that openness and joy with my children and beyond.