I’m not much for religion, and never have been, pretty much telling the Supreme Being to bite me in first grade. I thought being Lord of the Universe was a pretty good job, and I wondered how he got in. Seemed unfair, fixed, to me . Raised Catholic, I dreaded Sunday mass with the droning Latin and boring sermons, and the feeling that I had to “act holy” when basically, I didn’t give a shit.
Christmas was different. Of course, the presents under the tree were the highlight as we woke near dawn and squirmed in our beds waiting for our parents to rise. But on that day church too was enjoyable. The choir gave its all to those beautiful old carols. I found myself singing and meaning it, not in a devotional sense, but fully embracing the communal sense of good will, and the the world was a beautiful place, and we fortunate to be in it together. It might have rained or sleeted on some Christmas days, but my memories of Natal mornings are always sunny, snow on the ground in New York, or warm with a light breeze in southern California.
And there was the food. Not just turkey and trimmings, but the nuts, cookies, and sweets, that for this one day we could eat with out limit and no fear of adult admonitions. A chance to play and show off our new toys to neighbor kids.
When my family lived a few years in New York, Jewish friends had me over for Hannukkah celebrations and passover seders, and I saw that while these gatherings were about religion, and a different one than that I had been told was mine, they were also about family and community, and just plain fun.
Having spent a lot of time in the Islamic world, I found that the Muslims have their feasts too, and in their own way celebrate family and community just as the Christians and Jews do. During the fasting month in some places there are dazzling night markets where families eat seasonal treats and greet their neighbors after breaking the fast. Once on the island of Morotai, in the far north Moluccas of Indonesia, I attended a celebration of Eid Ul Adha, the feast of Sacrifices, where local Christians joined as well. There was even a dance – no touching- as young men and women did simple steps, circling each other and flirting.There was an enormous buffet of sizzling meets, savory curries and fresh fruit. Christians in the Moluccas will tell you the Muslims are far better cooks, and it’s true,
Some years after that, the Moluccas erupted in religious violence, jihadis poured in from Java, and the different religious communities remain separated to this day.
A predictable sign of the holiday season these days is postings on YouTube of varius imams and mullahs urging Muslims not to give the heathenish greeting: “Merry Christmas. In Indonesia, it was years ago common for Muslims and Christians to extend cordial greetings on their respective holidays. This is no longer the case, and sadly, it is largely the majority Muslims who have withdrawn from these neighborly rituals.
A former student of mine,an Indonesian engineer who spent many years working in Saudi Arabia, an official in a local Islamic charity and who has a large zabiba (prayer bump), startled me some years ago by mailing a Christmas wish, and he has done so every year since.
That means a lot. I’m an atheist, but I acknowledge that religion is hardly going to disappear any time soon. Thus, my Christmas wish is to see the hatred taken out of religion. But let’s keep the holidays. And the food.