I am not a religious person but I have never experienced as much serenity and peace as when I listen to a recitation of the Surah Maryam.
The opening verses of the 19th chapter of the Quran tell the stories of Yahya (John the Baptist in the Christian tradition) and the birth of Jesus. The verses are tender and delicate, filled with soft intonations that fall upon the ear like raindrops on a windowsill.
They speak of love and compassion in every turn of phrase. When the prophet Zakaria (Zacharias) prays for a child, he tells God that his bones have grown weary and the grey has spread throughout his hair. God tells him his wife would bear a child named Yahya, who will be blessed with divine “hanan”, a word often translated as “compassion,” but which also implies an all encompassing tenderness.
The verses are similarly gentle in their description of Maryam (Mary) as she enters labour. In describing Yahya and Jesus, their respective verses conclude with a prayer of "peace upon them, on the day they were born, the day they die and the day they are resurrected".
I love listening to the verses around Christmas. This past year has brought us all so little peace. In fact, it has been filled with anguish – at the lives lost, the lives interrupted, the distance from loved ones and the smallness of our world these days. But listening to the verses while watering the balsam fir tree in the corner of our apartment and breathing its fragrance is the essence of tranquility.
Our family is multifaith – my wife is Christian and I am Muslim. I started celebrating Christmas when we met, five years ago. She told me of decorating the tree every year with her mother, the little stocking stuffers she was fond of giving her children, the food, the joy of it all. I went out and came back with a tree and have picked one out every year since.
The Christmas lights went up early this year because it's 2020. There will be hymns by Fairouz and Majida Al Roumi alongside Michael Buble and Frank Sinatra. Instead of turkey and stuffing, there will be roast lamb and chestnut pilaf, fattouch, (real) hummus and muhammara and a Christmas log for dessert. The rituals are as much ours as they are everyone's.
The traditions of Ramadan and Eid are harder to replicate in Canada, largely because we are immigrants and do not have the same community we had back home. But we try, in attempts that are often characterised by frantic calls for traditional recipes and orders of date paste-stuffed kaak pastries and halawat jebn from Arab patisseries. It is funny how we often recall the scents and tastes of home through the medium of food.
We have a child now, but no village to help us raise him. The amalgamation of these various traditions and working to create new ones that are ours, feels like the most natural thing in the world.
I have never understood the reluctance to celebrate with other faiths – reluctance that infected our discourse due to the joyless edicts of the more strident preachers of our era. Not only because it is in bad taste, but also because it is alienating and miserly.
There is delight in the lighter sides of the Christmas holidays, and in their spiritual cadence too. The lights and the generosity, the scent of the fir trees and the revived connections with family. In its essence, Christmas has values identical to those of Eid. Never has H L Mencken’s diatribe about fundamentalism been more applicable: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
This pandemic has been a spectacle of joylessness and despondency. Even as the promise of an end to the plague in the form of vaccines appears on the horizon, milestones of death and infection are breached daily.
So perhaps joy for its own sake is worth striving for, and instilling in an infant. Or perhaps it is the other way around and we should learn for his sake to be spontaneously joyful more often. His laughter is instinctive, easy and unburdened. That alone makes it worth celebrating Christmas and Ramadan, Eid and Easter. The light and lightness are the point.
As winter sets in and the dark realities of the pandemic take hold again before dawn, I am comforted by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. My heart is still as echoes of the verse float around in my mind: may peace be upon us on all the days to come.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National