Christmas in a Muslim Community, But in a Non-Muslim Family

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Hi, Modern Filipina readers.

I’m Tazeana Joandre. My name is unusual, but so are many things about my upbringing.

When people ask where I’m from, I promptly respond with the truth: “far away from here”. I figured it’s as objective as I can get about it. But without fail, I’d always get the follow-up question:

“How far?”

“Mindanao.”

Gasp. “Where in Mindanao?”

Then, with a sense of resignation, I say “Tawi-Tawi.”

From here, it’s interesting to see people’s responses. Some people are more forthcoming; others look genuinely surprised. Some pretend to know where Tawi-Tawi is. Others, well, they inevitably go there. “So, you’re a Muslim?”

It’s a fair question. Tawi-Tawi is known for being a Muslim community after all. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I can count the non-Muslim people I know with my fingers and toes.

To answer the question, I’m not a Muslim. And for the record, there’s no such thing as “Muslim by blood”. No one is inherently Muslim, regardless of their origin of birth. You either practice Islam, or you don’t.

My parents were born into Muslim families. With the exception of my Catholic aunt-in-law, all my relatives are Muslims and live by Muslim values. I had Muslim friends, went to a Muslim school, could recite the Muslim prayer in my sleep. The only people who weren’t Muslim was me and my immediate family.

My mom and dad, for all their eccentricities, didn’t follow the steps that were paved before them. They didn’t go to the mosque or swear off pork. They didn’t have their children baptized at a young age or had a cow slaughtered for it, as was the Muslim custom. It was their concept of YOLO.

I doubt it was out of any deliberate intent to “fight the system” or challenge tradition. My parents were just culturally lazy. The hippies of the holiday-driven, hijab-wearing society. They just didn’t give a f*ck.

And what do you get for not caring? A family of modern-day heathens. My siblings and I grew up dreading questions about our chosen religion – from curious friends, from judgmental elders, from less-judgmental mentors. How do you explain “my parents didn’t bother” at 12 years old?

“Are you a child of Satan?”

“You know you’re going to hell, right?”

Each remark was from a Catholic classmate and a Muslim classmate, both pious followers of their respective religions. At 10, I took these statements to heart, tearfully fighting my mom and screaming that I don’t want to be skewered to death in the fiery pits of hell.

At 17, during my first months of college, I learned how to laugh them off. My college friends didn’t care which ‘god’ I subscribed to, or on what days of the week I prayed. For the first time, like my parents, I truly didn’t give a f*ck.

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Now, why am I sharing all these?

Because Christmas is only a few weeks away (THE MALL PLAYLIST OF JOSE MARI CHAN ISN’T LYING) and for someone who was raised in a non-Muslim and non-Christian household, tucked within a Muslim community, the world’s favorite holiday was always a thing of mystery.

In my neighborhood, only two families celebrated Christmas: mine and the last house on the block. For a family who didn’t bother with tradition, my parents sure didn’t want to miss out on the fun.

We ran the whole shebang. We got the dead mangrove tree, the Christmas lights, the Santa hats – all the shiny, shimmering ornaments that distracted us from the very reason we were putting them all up. We sang Christmas songs, and I vaguely knew who Jesus was.

As a kid, my awareness of things was limited to the fact that Christmas was fun, and all my friends were missing out for not celebrating it, much less talk about it.

In high school, I asked my best friends, who were all Muslims, to come over and spend Christmas with us. This invitation was met with a look of disbelief (that I asked) and that of affront (that I would think they’d say yes).

“Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas. They don’t believe Jesus’s birth deserves to be celebrated,” Mom would explain later.

“Who celebrates Christmas, then?”

“Christians.”

“Are we Christians?”

“No.”

“Then why do we celebrate it?”

“Because these things don’t matter. Christmas makes us happy, and it brings us together – that’s what matters.” She’d explain to me in Tausog, our mother tongue.

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On the day of, our Muslim relatives would turn up on our doorstep, waiting to be served my aunt’s famous fried chicken, frozen gulaman and chicken salad. I’d greet them with a hug and try not to recoil from their distinctly Arabian perfume. Pubescent me would sit before them, and willingly become the punchline of their fat jokes.

Mom was right. My Muslim aunts and cousins in their hijabs didn’t care that we were feasting in the name of Jesus, and neither did we.

They were there for the food, for the company, for the laughter, for the unsolicited five-second long kisses on the cheek. They were present for the stories, for the photo albums, for my dad’s never-ending anecdotes.

That’s what Christmas was for me. It was never about Jesus or his birth. It was something that my Muslim classmates didn’t celebrate, as well as something that brought me and my Muslim relatives together. It was neither good nor bad.

In a nutshell, it’s how my parents raised me. They taught me to do things not because other people are doing it, or that society expects it. You choose your own path, regardless, and be accountable to your decision. Do you make mistakes along the way? Good, now you know how not to make them again.

For my parents, traditions, religions, society’s expectations – all these structured aspects of life, they can enhance you as a person, but they shouldn’t be the mold with which you build yourself.

Celebrating Christmas and going to church or mosque, these are all secondary and merely decorative to what really matters: which is your own claim to happiness and growth as a decent, responsible, self-reliant adult.

Hence, heathen offsprings.

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Now, I’m sure my family and its set of controversial values are not all that unique. I know that like mine, many parents out there didn’t throw a baptism for their children and had condemned them to an eternity in hell. And like me, these children are too worried about the present life to care about the next.

So, to anyone whose family is as unhinged (and awesome as mine), here’s to another weird Christmas and an even more bizarre holiday season.

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