Dirty Laundry: Having a very merry non-Christmas

By Aisha Sultan

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Published: Monday, Dec. 27 2010 12:13 p.m. MST

For those of us who do not get a visit from Santa this time of year, there can be some slightly awkward holiday moments.

Like the time in elementary school when the teacher instructed the class to write about our favorite Christmas gifts. I was afraid that if I wrote the truth I might flunk the assignment, so I made up descriptions of new sweaters and toys. The few times I dared to tell classmates that Christmas morning was just like any other morning in our house, they looked at me with such disbelief and pity that I figured it was better to spare them the shock. It was a bit isolating to be left out of what seemed to be such a communal holiday.

And, now my children have had to negotiate their own responses to the well-intentioned questions by strangers and acquaintances.

We were waiting in line at the deli when a kindly older man leaned over to ask my then-preschooler what Santa was bringing her. She looked him square in the eye and said: Nothing.

He got flustered, and I felt a little sorry for him. Every year, my children will be asked this question over and over by adults in malls, grocery stores and on the playground.

We've talked to our children about how each religion has its own special days and remind them about our celebrations. My daughter accepted this explanation right away. Early on, when my son kept insisting that surely Santa would visit his house, I got them each little presents and talked about the spirit of giving during this time of year.

I've never felt that the festivities of another culture or religion threaten my own. Our children should feel at ease appreciating difference and comfort in what they recognize as their own traditions.

To be honest, I'm a sucker for Christmas. I'll sing carols in the car or while shopping. I have several boxes of silver ornaments, garland on our fireplace and miniature decorative trees on our tables. I love buying gifts, and I can't resist holiday parties or cookies. I mail holiday cards with Eid stamps on the envelope.

And as an adult, I've realized that it's a great time of year to celebrate as an outsider. I can enjoy the beauty of the season without the stress of unrealistic expectations. I'm glad my children don't get struck by the gimmies. Instead we can adopt families who need gifts. We can tell people like our garbage man, newspaper delivery man and neighbors that we appreciate them.

This year, I persuaded my spouse to string some lights on the pillars outside our home. It just looks festive. My kindergartner looked at me and said: "You know we don't celebrate Christmas, Mama."

I said: "I know. We're just having some holiday spirit."

A couple of nights later, he retold the Hanukkah story to me in surprising and accurate detail. He heard it last year from a parent volunteer who came to share the story with his class and again this year from the school librarian. I was impressed with his rendition. It seems fitting for a season celebrating peace and love to have my Muslim child share a Jewish story days before we shopped for his teachers' Christmas gifts.

So, from our family to yours: Have a wonderful holiday, however you choose to celebrate.

Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at asultan@post-dispatch.com.

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