What’s Christmas like when you’re not Christian?

MID-December and Christmas mania is in full swing.

Shopping centres are festooned with festive decorations, shops are playing Christmas soundtracks and parking spaces are increasingly difficult to find.

In primary schools, children are enthusiastically rehearsing their nativity plays and mothers are experiencing that slight feeling of panic at their never-ending ‘to do for Christmas’ list.

The days are still getting shorter, and seemingly faster, as we hurtle towards the culmination of all this madness on the 25th.

At this time of year, it often feels like ‘stop the Christmas, I want to get off’, just for a wee bit, anyway.

But what about people who don’t celebrate Christmas? Are they affected by this madness? How do they carry on as normal when all about them seems to be convulsed by this festive fury?

Dr Ali Selim is a Muslim Egyptian who came to Ireland in 1998 to work.

He arrived with his young wife, Sasaa, and says that all he knew about this country was what he had heard on the media in Egypt, which was entirely about the Troubles.

Ali says he worried he was coming to one of the world’s “hot spots” and was relieved to find himself in what turned out to be “a very peaceful place” in Dublin.

Ali and Sasaa are now settled here. Ali is in charge of adult education at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in Clonskeagh.

The couple have a busy family life, with two daughters, Yasmin, 13, and Rehab, 12, and three sons, Ahmad, ten, Muhammad, six, and baby Mahmoud, who is six months old. Christmas was not an unknown festival to Ali. In Egypt, there are 8m Christians (of a total population of 85m) who celebrate Christmas.

So is Christmas here much different to what Ali had experienced at home?

“Well, Christmas in my country is not as commercial as here. Around Christmas time, you would see Christians frequenting their churches more than they usually do,” he says.

Central to the Irish family Christmas is Santa. For parents, managing their children’s expectations on Christmas morning is often a challenge, especially these days.

Does any of this rub off on the Selim children?

Apparently not. Santa does not call to Muslim children because, as Ali says, Muslims have their own celebrations and festivals.

The first is the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr, which celebrates the breaking of the fast following Ramadan.

The second is Eid-ul-Adha, which is a festival of sacrifice commemorating the story of the prophet Abraham.

“At Eid-ul-Fitr, our children are dressed in new clothes and are given extra pocket money. Then, they will be taken to the Mosque for prayer,” says Ali. Afterwards, local Muslim centres organise a community event, where toys are distributed, while the adults chat over refreshments.

In the coming days, many parents of primary school children here will get the note advising them of the annual staging of the nativity play. Ali’s children attend the local Catholic national school, so they have become familiar with the Christian story of the birth of Jesus.

“Yes, they hear the story at school and come home to us and tell us what they heard. For Muslims, Jesus is a great prophet and so this gives us an opportunity to talk to them about Jesus the prophet,” Ali says.

Christmas madness seems not to pose any issues for Ali or his family. But surely he must get frustrated at the way Ireland closes down for the best part of two festive weeks.

“We plan in advance. We buy what we will need while shops are closed,” he says.

So, once that is done, Christmas for Muslims like Ali and his family is just another day. But he says “the lights and decorations are very nice, of course. They brighten up the place, so you can’t say no to that.”

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