Last spring, we took a course on world religions. In that course, we were introduced to the idea that as Canadians, we lived in a culturally Christian society. That is, even if you do not identify as a Christian, your life is still heavily influenced by Christian culture. This made me want to learn more about what it meant to be culturally Muslim. That quest has taken us to Turkey and Syria so far, and hopefully will also take us to Jordan and Malaysia before we return home. As someone who does not identify as a Christian, I did not expect that journeying to predominately Muslim countries would teach me just how much Christianity has influenced my life.
In a culturally Christian society Christmas is a special time. At home, it is marked by the streets and buildings being lit up by colourful lights and Christmas music playing in all the stores. In Antakya, Turkey, we saw no signs of Christmas. So far, in Aleppo, Syria, the only Christmas tree we have seen is in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel – and it feels completely out of place – maybe because it is a tacky commercial tree with only white lights that looks like it came in a box already decorated.
For me personally, Christmas has always been a difficult time, filled with unmet expectations, societal pressures, an meaningless rituals. We decided that since we will be in Syria for Christmas, that we would not celebrate it this year. Instead, we celebrated Eid Al-Adha (Bayram) in Turkey which is the closest thing to Christmas for Muslims – and nothing at all like Christmas. One of our goals in this time away is to figure out what is important to us, so that we can define our own Christmas celebrations when we return home.
I miss baking. Most of the places we have stayed since leaving North America have not had real ovens – mostly people have gas hotplates and sometimes they might have a toaster oven. Most of my traditional desserts are cooked on the stove. At home, shortbread cookies, gingersnaps, and various sweet breads are special Christmas treats.
I miss the coloured lights. It was odd to see Kayseri, Turkey with a light coating of snow and no coloured lights. The first falling of snow at home is often lit up by red, green, blue, and yellow Christmas lights. What a beautiful sight that is.
I miss real Christmas trees – that is, those of the Charlie Brown variety. Trees that are full of colour and life and mismatched decorations, some handmade by the children as they grew up, trees that have grown and changed with the family over the years.
At home, I dreaded the idea of being forced to attend a Christian church service, often plotting different ways to escape the experience. So, I am surprised that I am feeling a desire to attend a service at one of the various churches here in Aleppo. I am curious about what will be familiar and what will be foreign.
Most of all, I miss the music. Not the commercial Christmas music playing in the Sheraton like Jingle Bell Rock, rather the more traditional and definitely Christian songs like Joy to the World and Silent Night. Maybe that is what I am hoping to find in a Church service or Christmas concert in Aleppo Syria – Aleppo has a significant Christian population with a variety of different churches including Syrian Orthodox and Catholic.
Who would have thought that living in a Muslim society would help me learn what parts of Christmas I love?