x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fatima al Shamsi: The real meaning of Christmas

Christmas shouldn't be complicated, enjoy it however you celebrate.

The house was filled with the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, cookies were baking, our kitten was hiding between the branches of our Christmas tree and the presents beneath it were starting to take over the living room floor. It was day two of our holiday extravaganza.

"I like how you've turned Christmas into Eid," my roommate mused.

The people who make up my group of close friends represent a wide range of ethnicities, nationalities and religions, and we never miss out on an excuse to celebrate a holiday. Actually, we never miss out on any excuse to get together, indulge in a ludicrous amount of food, and exchange gifts.

Despite having grown up in countries that celebrated Christmas, I had never indulged in its stereotypical rituals. This year, when my roommate suggested we have a pre-Christmas party before we all went home for the holidays, I was surprised to realise I had never properly observed Christmas before. So I decided to go all out.

Cue the tree, the Charlie Brown ornaments, the snowman wrapping papers and the cinnamon-flavoured everything. Just like Eid, Christmas at our place was going to last three days and include an overload of friends, family and food, which, as every holiday television special has sought to teach us, is the true meaning of Christmas.

Earlier this month, I overheard someone debating whether it was appropriate for people to celebrate Christmas if they were not Christian. I can never understand why people enjoy complicating the most trivial thing. Partaking in a family-orientated celebration does not imply changing your faith or believing in something different.

One of the things I enjoy most during Ramadan is when my friends who are not Muslim take part. There is a great sense of solidarity when you are fasting with friends who are making an effort to share in an experience that is foreign to them. When invited to join in others' celebrations I'm always excited to see what's in store. While for some people Christmas is religious and includes observing Advent and going to Mass, for others it is a just a holiday.

From Hanukkah to Holi, it's been a blessing to be around so many different people growing up and being able to observe how different religions and countries celebrate important events. It is always fascinating to see what other people consider important or sacred, and taking part in a celebration is one of the best ways to gain understanding about different traditions.

Our Christmas brought together three Muslims, a Catholic, a Lutheran and a few agnostics, as did our Thanksgiving and our Eid before it. While the significance of Christmas is different for all of us, there is nothing better than being with family and friends, something that was evident to me on that recent Saturday morning as our kitten got stuck in our tree. Half an hour, a few broken ornaments and a storm of pine needles later, we are closer than ever.

As we head into the new year I encourage all to look into sharing and taking part in different celebrations. It gets tedious to watch the news and hear about how this or that religion or this and that ethnicity is in the midst of war, when in reality we all share a common desire to be happy and safe with those we love. Therefore, the more reason to get together, the better.

Not too much hatred comes from good food and some warm apple cider.

I wish you all a happy and prosperous new year.

Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati based in New York