The Grinch: A Misunderstood Mujahid

Growing up a Muslim in Boston in the 70s and 80s and with little contact with the broader Muslim community, I had BIG issues with Christmas.

Unlike a lot of Muslims, my beef with Christmas wasn’t theological.  I don’t accept the line that to joining Christians in celebrating their holiday is to engage in or condone  shirk (idolatry), as do many Muslims.  Nor was it philosophical or ethical.  To the contrary, I always liked Christmas in principle, finding it a noble and inspiring holiday that reminds people of what’s important in life.

My objection was cultural and political.  I saw it as a cultural Trojan Horse, a sneaky way for the Christian majority to impose its values on non-Christian minorities.  Its ubiquitousness and the lack of attention given to other religions’ holidays (except for the perfunctory nod to Hanukkah) offended my sense of multicultural equality.

Religious exchanges are great, but so long as they really are exchanges–it must be two-way street, not something imposed on minorities.  During my childhood in Boston,  nobody ever wished me “Eid mubarak” or gave a hoot about my religious background, so I resented having Christmas rammed down my throat (and really gave my Jewish friends grief over their “Hanukkah bushes“) .  To my eyes, it was yet another way to promote assimilation and I was no fan of assimilation (and still am not, for that matter).

As a result,  I always found myself rooting for the Grinch during the TV special every year and came to view him, like Ebenezer Scrooge, as a tragic hero, a misunderstood mujahid for religious freedom and multicultural equality.

These days, though, I must confess I’m increasingly relaxed about Christmas.  My machinations against the Yuletide season are now mostly a sweet memory (I miss plotting against it with my Jewish friends–one year we went and watched “Hellraiser” at the theater on Christmas Eve).  I suspect that’s because today the Muslim community is much larger, more developed and better organized.  In a day where ISNA draws tens of thousands to its convention every year and when mosques and Islamic shops are sprouting everywhere, Christmas no longer necessarily functions as an insidious threat to a fledgling community trying to establish its own identity and resist the crushing pull of assimilation, at least where I live, I think.

Update (12-12-25):
Driving around Northern Virginia today (which is Christmas Day) desperately searching for a place to relax and plug in my laptop, I felt some of my old anti-Christmas resentments returning.   It happens to me every year.  I feel increasingly ecumenical as the Christmas season progresses but then when Santa shuts down all my favorite shops and haunts and leaves me shivering outside in the cold wondering what to do, I find myself crying out, “Bah humbug!”

Since Christmas is just another day for me, I go about my normal business and forgot that everything will be closed.  You’d think I’d learn, but It catches me off guard every time.  I always end up getting denied access to something important at the last minute (e.g., in this case an internet cafe).

Few things are more boring and frustrating for us infidels than the Christmas Day ghost town phenomenon, when a world that never sleeps suddenly shuts off the lights and locks the door in the middle of the day.  It can be agonizingly boring, and very frustrating if you’re not expecting it and made plans that involve a visit to any business other than a gas station.

While living in Copenhagen about a decade ago, I was so desperate for something, anything, to do on Christmas Eve that I took a train to a Buddhist Temple, though it turned out that, much to my horror, they were celebrating Christmas, too.

As the US becomes increasingly diverse and multi-confessional, perhaps we should take a lesson from Israel and establish a “Shabbas Goy”-style system for Christmas where shops with non-Christian employees remain open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and cater to those of us with nothing to do or celebrate.

Thank goodness for Lebnan Zamaan, a Lebanese sheesha cafe in Vienna, Virginia (an exotically named suburb of DC, for you non-Washingtonians).

Update (2006-01-04): Christopher Hitchens recently penned a memorable and elegant anti-Christmas screed.

  • UmmZaid

    Salaam ‘Alaikum
    I’m loving CVS (the drug store) right now. Here in Beantown, they were pretty much the only game in town on Xmas Eve and Xmas itself. Yes, the movie theatres are open, b/c they learned they can make a lot of money on Xmas… but as for buying medicine, or some soda, or a gallon of milk, CVS was the only thing open. Alhamdulillah too, as my oldest son got very sick late on Xmas Eve, and the doc wanted me to give him something I didn’t have in the house. And you know what? CVS was packed.
    I’m like you. Even though I ought to know better, every year I forget that they close early on the 24th and don’t open at all on the 25th, so I’ll be sitting at home w/ my family saying, “Let’s go here, there,” or “I need to go to the grocery store…” And then when I go out, I’m reminded…

  • Yusuf Smith

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,
    I think the main reason for shops mostly being closed on the 25th is simply that a lot of workers who do celebrate Christmas want that day off. The reasons are basically progressive and are not a form of religious reactionary oppression. The whole Bah Humbug thing was in fact the attitude of bosses when their workers wanted the day off. As for Israel, how strong are the strict Jews there anyway, given that if they are that strict they won’t want their shops being kept open on the Sabbath anyway. But on the other hand there are a lot of industries which need to be kept going, like the power and communications industries, and I think public transport should be added to this. Because the thing I hate most is having to go to family gatherings where a lot of pork and other haraam stuff is eaten simply because I can’t get anywhere else.

  • Svend White

    Thanks for the comment, Yusuf. You’re right, of course, about the reasoning behind the closings and I realize that one of the blights of modern life is how business never ceases (i.e., the old “blue laws” designed to encourage families to spend time together on weekends are long gone), so perhaps I’m not being entirely consistent. That’s why I jokingly suggested using a “Shabbas goy”-style system–I certainly don’t want to deny those who celebrate this holiday the chance to do so without being subject to economic or professional hardships.

  • Svend White

    That’s funny about CVS, Umm Zaid. Had never thought of that, but it makes perfect sense. I imagine that 7-11′s do brisk business then, too.
    I don’t know how many movies I saw on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day growing up!