Christmas without Ramadan

I’ve never really liked Christmas. It was the most forced family event of the year, defined by spectacular displays of anxiety from my mother and bad temper served up by my father, always in time for guests. While that doesn’t sound much different from others’ fun family holidays, there was another layer of dysfunction in it for me. My Dad is Muslim, a fact that we ignored for the entire year, not just on big Christian holidays. December 25th highlighted particularly well the lack of Muslim traditions in my immediate family, despite the fact that Lebanese Muslims outnumbered my English mother’s kin and me and my American siblings.

Let me walk you through a typical Itani Christmas (you Arabic speakers know how ridiculous the pairing of a large Lebanese Muslim family name and the word “Christmas” is). In the morning, my siblings and I woke up way too early and tore into our presents like obnoxious kids the world over. The gifts broke along gender and culture lines. As the one with the Arabic name and the insatiable curiosity for all things Middle Eastern, I would get the “cultural” gift (a subscription to Foreign Affairs was popular). “You’re so…Oriental,” my mother would often say, perplexed, in her British accent. Um, yeah Mom, did you see the Lebanese guy you married? Just saying.

My brother Stuart would get the “sports” gift, although all of us were athletic. And my little sister Fiona, the most American of us all, would get the “American” gift, usually trendy clothes and music that made me seethe with jealousy (apparently a cross cultural trait).

Before we had a chance to take inventory, my father was barking orders to clean up wrapping paper, salvage gift cards, and organize, organize, organize. It was like he was auditioning for the Captain’s role in the Sound of Music. Soon after presents, we piled in the car and drove to a nearby park to take the dogs for a walk, usually in a few feet of snow (Ohio. Enough said). Dad had all people and canines walking at a brisk pace, making the activity feel more like surgery prep in his hospital OR than fun in winter wonderland. Again, Christopher Plummer’s Austrian captain comes to mind.

Meanwhile, my mother was busy doing her own prep in the kitchen. The turkey—the crowning glory of an English Christmas dinner—was brined, dressed, and popped in the oven. The Brussels sprouts were chopped, the potatoes scrubbed. The best dishes were laid out, ready to display and serve the meat, overcooked vegetables, and Christmas puddings that had come all the way from Harrods. With amazement, we watched her recreate the Christmases of her childhood in post-war Britain.

But then came the Middle Eastern part of Christmas—hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouleh, lamb kabobs, and honey and nut-ladened sweets. You see, our Christmas always included the Lebanese dishes that we grew up on, the ones that my father taught my mother to cook for him when they were residents in London. It was delicious, and pure torture. Mom worried for days about the food and the guests. She became almost crippled at the thought of my father’s temper if things weren’t perfect. The food was always amazing, but my mother never seemed to enjoy it. While Dad entertained guests with awkward conversation, my mother usually sat in silence and the kids skulked off, not sure what to do.

No matter what kind of crazy family shit went down on Christmas Day, we came together around a feast of traditional English food and Lebanese dishes. Seriously, mezze and Christmas turkey…the best. Food got me through the uncomfortable reality that each year, we celebrated Christmas and ignored Ramadan. I didn’t know when Ramadan started, or how to properly break the fast at sundown. I didn’t know the customs around Eid al Fitr or Eid al Adha. But I learned all about Christmas, little baby Jesus, the three wise men, away in a manger. My Dad loved parts of Christmas like having a tree with lights, but kept his Muslim traditions private and shared nothing with his wife and children. The reasons ranged from laziness to bigotry. There was the subtle and overt racism—comments, knowing jokes, workplace reviews—that he faced while pursuing a surgery career in the US and the UK. And without a Muslim wife to educate the kids or a mosque to attend, it was easier to keep to himself and find a secular middle ground complete with Christmas trees and Easter chocolate.

As the kid with the Arabic name and the stubborn nature, I pushed away my mother’s holidays in response to the absence of my father’s Islam. I saw Christmas as a farce that hid my parent’s unease with each others’ religions. Seriously, how can you have one holiday without acknowledging the others? How can you only know about one half of your family? How can you have Christmas without Ramadan? I downplay Christmas every year because I feel like what’s the point? It’s only half of my story. I get frustrated. I’m scared that if I focus too much on one side, I will lose the other.

Many of us whose families span religions and nationalities cut corners to keep the peace, or make sense of things. We abbreviate religious traditions and holidays, and rely on food to help us come together and show love, even when it is confusing or incomplete. Don’t get me wrong, the cultural fusion that marks so many of our communities is vital—and delicious. But when Christmas rolls around each year, I have trouble getting excited ripping into the wrapping paper, going to “holiday” parties, or even having a tree. I am still trying to find the balance for myself. But having hummus with the holiday turkey, or baklava with my Christmas cookies? Not a problem.

By Zena F. Itani

[rescue_column size=”one-fourth” position=”first”]Zena Itani headshot for mxroots fest 2010[/rescue_column]Zena Itani is an Arab American activist, athlete, and adventurer. She is a public health practitioner with over a decade of experience building innovative organizations and programs, and using multimedia for planning, storytelling, and advocacy. A resident of Washington, DC, Zena now lives in Amman, Jordan with her family. You can find her in her garden in Jabal Amman and on Twitter at @ZenaItani.

A Problem with Christmas

Christmas carols drifted into the living room of the small apartment from the tablet plugged into speakers in the kitchen while Mom prepared dinner. It clashed only slightly with “A Christmas Story” running on TV where two young girls lay flopped about like lazily thrown blankets. It was already dark outside the living room window but it was fought against by the soft glow of a single string of lights hastily hung about the small windows.

Dad was late getting home but the children were already used to that by now. The big adjustments came months earlier when they moved to Southern California so Dad could work on films. Somehow it made things feel more “normal” in the family now that Dad went out to work and Mom could work from home. Dad never seemed happy around their old home in Minnesota which made no sense to the children. Why did they trade their big house with a yard for this little place and so many cars? Still, it was always a celebration when Dad came home. The door handle rattled as someone fumbled with the lock.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” came a voice booming down the hall.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” cried the children as they jumped up to meet him.

They ran into the hall but were not ready for what faced them. Instead of their father they faced a floor to ceiling pine tree waddling down the hall. They quickly got out of its way.

“What is this?” cried Mom half in shock and half laughing.

“Haven’t you seen a Christmas tree before?” said Dad’s voice, his face still not yet visible from behind the foliage.

Soon enough the tree popped through the hallway passage into the living room and the children could finally embrace Dad and his wife give him a quick kiss hello. He leaned the tree up against the window next to the TV then stepped back to admire his work.

“Where’d you get it Dad?” said the eldest child.

“The lot around the corner.”

“You carried this a whole block?” asked Mom.

“Why not? It’s Christmas Eve. We don’t have to give up all our traditions since moving out here,” replied Dad.

His wife smiled and shook her head knowingly like she had done a hundred times before. She turned back to the kitchen then said over her shoulder, “Well, dinner’s ready. Let’s eat!”

After dinner the Dad and Mom sat at the dining room/kitchen table. Dad was leaning back on his chair, one arm hanging over the back of the chair, the other resting on the table holding the base of his glass. The eldest daughter ran in wearing her pajamas.


“Yes, baby.”

“Will it snow tonight?”

“Not likely. It almost never snows in Southern California and certainly not here.”

“Oh,” she said casting her eyes down. “I miss our home.”

“This is our home, remember?” he replied.

“I know, but I don’t even know how we’re going to celebrate Christmas anymore.”

“We’ll celebrate it as a family like we always do. Now go brush your teeth,” he said while turning her around an giving her a gentle push.

The children could be heard jostling with each other in the bathroom as they fought over the sink to brush their teeth. The Mom listened to them, laughing to herself, as she cradled her wine glass. She looked across the empty bottle standing on the table between her and her husband.   His eyes were fixed on a pile of parcels on the floor next to the tree still leaning against the window, Christmas presents received over the past week from their mid-west family.

“What are you thinking about?” asked Mom.

“Oh, just wondering what we would be doing if we were back in Minnesota right now,” he answered her without moving or taking his eyes off the packages.

“You know what we would be doing. In the even numbered years, we would be at your aunt’s house, with everyone else in your family. In fact, judging by the time, they probably tore into their presents hours ago and are probably figuring out who is the least drunk to drive home. Same thing they do…we did, when we were there,” she replied.

Dad chuckled slightly at the drunk driving remark.

Without taking his eyes off the presents he replied, “And in the odd years, no pun intended, we would see your family on Christmas day after church services and open all their presents. Then break open the wine and then have to figure out how to get home.”

Mom nodded to herself then said to him pointedly, “So what’s bugging you?”

Dad suddenly snapped to and turned to his wife.

“Nothing’s bugging me. I was just thinking about how the longer we stay here the further our kids will be from the family traditions we grew up with,” he said.

“You know we can’t afford to fly home right now.”

“I know and I can’t take the time off work, yet. But still, I can’t help but feel like we’re missing something. Christmas just feels smaller now somehow.”

“Smaller?” she asked.

“Yeah, well, you know. Sometime tomorrow we’ll open presents, and that’ll be it.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad to me.”

“Yeah, but there will be fewer people. Less time spent. And besides, my family always opens presents on Christmas Eve.”

“Ok, but my family always waited until Christmas Day.”

“Santa comes on Christmas Day.”

Again the eye rolls came from the Mom. They sat in silence for a while. Mom looked up to see Dad staring through the table then she looked over at the parcels on the floor.

“Well, why don’t we open all the presents we got from your family tonight?”


“You said your family always opened presents on Christmas Eve. Well, we’ll do your family’s presents tonight and tomorrow we’ll do mine.”

Dad scratched his head for a moment, cocking it to one side, then back again to look at his wife. A smile grew on his face starting from one corner of his mouth then moving to the other.

“Oh yeah. Why didn’t I think of that?”

His wife rolled her eyes.

“Call the kids.”

“Hey kids!” Dad shouted.

The children ran out in their pajamas.

“What Dad?” they asked slightly asynchronous with the eldest leading as usual.

Holding them close, Dad looked them with large eyes, “How would you two like to…open some presents?!”

Screaming and hopping around ensued causing Mom and Dad to wince from the shrill noise.

“Which ones?” they yelled.

“Go find the packages from my family sitting next to the tree and we’ll open those tonight,” he said.

“Not until we’ve cleaned off the table!” yelled Mom.

But it was too late. The children were already off going through the boxes. Dad completely ignored her, too, bending over the kids and setting aside packages. Again Mom smiled to herself and shook her head. She grabbed a few plates from the table and turned to the sink such that she couldn’t see the kids and Dad anymore although she could still hear their voices through the kitchen doorway.

“And when will we open the other presents?” asked the eldest astutely.

“Well, we’ll open them tomorrow of course, just like we’ve always done,” replied Dad.

“Ah, it’s like we’re going to have two Christmases instead of one! Thanks Dad!”

At that last remark Mom looked indignantly.

“Thank your Mom,” said Dad quickly, “now let’s get this tree set-up first.”

By Holiday Guest Blogger Thomas Lopez
President / Latinas and Latinos of Mixed Ancestry (LOMA) Founder and Director

Thomas Lopez

Thomas Lopez has been a member of MASC for over fifteen years and is a past president of the organization.  He has made numerous television, print, and on-line media appearances and speaking engagements as a keynote and panelist.  As a long-time board member he has also organized conferences, a mini-film festival, and diversity training workshops.  Apart from MASC, Thomas is a mechanical engineer having worked in multiple industries the most recent being medical devices.  He was born and raised in Southern California with parents from Mexican American and German-Polish roots.