It is the Christmas season, perhaps the only season that unifies Christians around the world, making holiday plans; restructuring the future; throwing an appropriate farewell to the dying year; and bidding welcome to the new one with gifts, decisions, and ideas, or at least hope — the cheapest of all.
In my childhood, I was a Muslim student in a Catholic school. As far as I remember, we would spend November and December decorating our classes to look their best throughout the Christmas season. Before the year ends, the school administration always ran a competition on a yearly basis for the best decorated class. The Ma Mère (or the Mother of Nuns) would announce the winning classes and students of the year.
Apart from the fact that I was never student of the year — or even student of the week — the class decoration experience is engraved in my memory. As much as it encourages creativity, it also unifies Muslim and Christian students by engaging them in a school-wide experience not confined to a religious context of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him). It also taught us to come together as one. It was that simple.
I have been heedless about the difference between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. It was a paradox. Confusion manifolds when I hear that the Messiah’s birth date varies between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, but knowing back then I was too young to grasp the matter was quite soothing.
The only thing that stood solid was the value of participation and being engaged in something that might not completely relate to what I believed in as a Muslim — only the value of sharing other people’s moments was priceless, nevertheless.
In spite of many years spent mingling in a society stricter than a hit of a wood stick, fun had a different meaning, and the rituals were meaningful.
After graduation, I had no more celebrations like such. It was not part of me, and I realized then I only had to do it because of the school’s environment. Do I miss it? Probably not from a financial aspect, not even spiritually; the value of enjoying coexistence and diversity in a very small community is what I largely miss.
This might come too awkward, or it might as well invite an argument of how someone could possibly halt such a valuable practice after undergoing it many times before while he or she has a much wider space to do it.
Despite the validity of the thought, if a man cannot step into the same river twice, according to Heraclitus’s philosophy, what about applying it in a different setting where the status quo shows that Egyptian Muslim and Christian folks are shrinking into their shells and slowly disappearing from the coexistence scene, exploring individualism in a quite crude, devastating manner.
We might get so many holidays to rejoice, and many of us do it separately or together, but sadly, lacking the depth it should contain.
Many Westerners and Christians around the world think Christmas and other Western/Christian celebrations are too commercialized to the extent that they do not take part in them anymore. Some of these celebrations are nationalistic, or not authentically Christian, yet too commercialized, and we are buying it.
Egypt has always been a cosmopolitan nation — a melting spot for races and cultures. Egyptians have the gift of taste, acceptance, and tolerance. This spirit has long existed, but currently, alas, it has become misapprehended by the new generations.
Instead of renovating the threshold of Egyptian aggravated internal matter and creativity and raising the bar to present the culture to the world righteously, many of us confuse tolerance and acceptance with preserving identity.
Muslims’ Celebration Dilemma
How many of us ceased this habit despite the joy it brings? How many of us think this tradition is now confined to the poor or those belonging to lower classes? We, Egyptian Muslims, might be in thousands or millions — perhaps not too significant compared to the size of the population that is almost 80 million. It is hardly a Muslim tradition, but it is Egyptian indeed, and it is on its way to erosion or to be tarnished with covert discrimination against the poor.
We have to admit that Muslims’ behavior is slowly dismantling from preserving the Egyptian identity. Instead of purchasing new clothes for `Eid, some find their treat to shop for Halloween costume parties or Christmas trees, spending the New Year’s Eve in European or Asian countries, or celebrating Thanksgiving — thanksgiving really?
This image might not look too harmful from the outside. Egypt is a free country, and people are free to do as they please. The more Egyptians celebrate non-Egyptian celebrations in the name of having FUN, it is where the hazard lies. Why?
If it is only a slight layer of the population, whom we may call the elite, being creative about having fun in celebrating the things that do not represent our culture, then they are definitely giving a false image about the Egyptian culture to the world, as well as damaging new generations’ recognition of their own identity and assisting them breed a troubled identity based on lack of depth and knowledge.
How many of those who gush over celebrating Halloween, Christmas, or Thanksgiving know about its history, what it symbolizes, or who celebrates it? I reckon only a few, and the rest would not even care.
This might come across as a prejudgment, not to mention curbing freedom of choice and expression. Perhaps Egyptian Muslim and Christian believers know that nothing is absolute except for the Creator.
In other words, freedom is far from absolute — our freedom of choice has limits designed for our own benefit. Freedom of choice includes an examination of the people’s needs, from which comes the answer to many questions.
Adopting non-Egyptian habits is a huge loss of identity and only shows a bankrupt culture. If celebrating other international holidays is a sign of tolerance and understanding of the Western culture, only the intentions would stand applauded, but the quirks of practicing tolerance only show that we are too westernized more than the West is “easternized.”
Celebrating non-Egyptian holidays or even religious holidays in a non-Egyptian way will not bring peace into the region, as it will not “untarnish” Muslims and Arabs from accusations of terrorism and violence.
Christmas can be a heavenly occasion where Muslim and Christian Copts show compassion for each other and embrace years of brotherhood under the same skies.
This year can be a great opportunity for Muslims and Christians to renew a pact of coexistence, perhaps it can be an antidote to the venomous aggravation between Muslim and Christian Copts inside and the humiliation inflicted upon us amid the war on terror from outside.
Instead of breeding intolerance and disowning our traditions, we had better stick to what we have before it is too late to preserve what we once had.