Merry Christmas! And you're right, I don't celebrate Christmas, being Muslim, but I love participating in the celebration of it. I grew up wistfully and excitedly delighting in intricate Christmas light displays, listening to Christmas music in department stores, and playing, in numerous orchestra concerts, Christmas music from Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Bells to Handel's Messiah. My parents exchanged gifts with some of their Christian friends and I sometimes exchanged gifts with my school friends. I didn't mind Christmas around me; in fact, I felt left out when I couldn't participate.
These days, I've heard or read, more than once, someone ranting about his or her right to say Merry Christmas to people and how this right has been corroded by political correctness and pluralism. But wishing someone happiness on a holiday should be a matter of goodwill, not rights. Often, those demanding their right to wish me Merry Christmas are not interested - if they've even thought about it - in wishing me Eid Mubarak. In fact, an article in the Christian Science Monitor, while making the case for wishing "Merry Christmas," simultaneously made rude and ignorant statements about Muslims and Eid. And there's the real issue: respect.
In a pluralistic society, if we're interested in fairness, then we can all either ignore one another's holidays and celebrate only our own, or we can celebrate all one another's holidays together. However, if we want to be truly fair, we should not impose, for example, Christmas wishes on everyone while ignoring, among others, Eid wishes, Diwali wishes, Hanukkah wishes, and Kwanzaa wishes. The solution is to celebrate all of them and treat them all with equal respect.
And that's what countries with truly multi-religious populations have done. My Christian Lebanese Islamic law professor told me that in Lebanon Muslims celebrate Christmas and Christians celebrate Eid. That's true in other parts of the Middle East, as well. My parents included Hindus in their Eid celebrations in India and were included in Diwali and Holi celebrations.
In Africa, many parts of which contain Muslim and Christian populations, Muslims often join in Christmas festivities; in Senegal, which is nearly 95% Muslim, as well as in Muslim-majority Gambia, Muslims and Christians celebrate each other's holidays. The mosque in Dakar sports Christmas lights during the season. In Sri Lanka, the major Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian holidays are public holidays.
In Singapore, Christmas celebrations are much more extensive than in the United States: gospel choirs appear on various street corners and in the airport; an entire city block's worth of Christmas decorations and merchandise is sold in one mall; and Christmas lights and music and decorations festoon every bit of the city. Yet, Singapore has four national languages, four main religions, and several other smaller religious groups; on our visit, we were told cheerfully that all the Christmas lights would be used again, metamorphosed, for Chinese New Year's, then again for Eid, and so on. Each religious holiday was given due respect and celebration. All the Singaporeans I met celebrated them all, at least in some degree.
The United States, for all its emphasis on multiculturalism, has not had a strong tradition of being a multi-religious country, and it's been harder for me and other minorities like me to bridge some of those religious gaps. Helping celebrate someone else's holiday doesn't mean compromising one's own religious beliefs. I'm a sincere and observant Muslim, but I fast on Yom Kippur, in solidarity with Jews (because that's what the Prophet Muhammad told Muslims to do). I've often baked cookies to give to my neighbors at Christmas. My mother-in-law is Christian and, when we can, we celebrate Christmas with her. For years, my husband and I invited friends of all religious and non-religious backgrounds to our Eid dinner parties.
Segregating our American holidays - which include Christmas, yes, but also include Eid and Hanukkah and Diwali and a host of others - may seem natural and even respectful. But in practical terms, such segregation fosters suspicion, a sort of tribalism, and even hostility. Celebrating all our American holidays, at least to some degree, would foster unity and goodwill. We are one country and we have much more in common than not.
So whatever you celebrate, consider inviting someone outside your religious (or non-religious) community to come celebrate with you. Goodwill to mankind is at the base of all holidays. In the meantime, whatever your background, I wish you an unapologetic and unabashed Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.