British Columbia·Point of View

I'm Muslim and didn't celebrate Christmas growing up. But my Canadian kids had other ideas

As a Muslim, Taslim Jaffer did not grow up celebrating Christmas. But having kids who are second-generation Canadians has meant embracing new family traditions.

Taslim Jaffer grapples with preserving her East African-Indian roots while raising children in B.C.

As a Muslim, Taslim Jaffer did not grow up celebrating Christmas. But having kids who are second-generation Canadians has meant embracing new family traditions. (Taslim Jaffer)

This is an opinion column by Taslim Jaffer, a first-generation immigrant whose children have enthusiastically embraced Christmas. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

My family was at White Spot for my son's sixth birthday when I was asked the dreaded question by my daughter: "Is Santa real?" 

"What?" I said, stalling. 

"I don't think he's real. Is he?"

"Well, at one time," I began, "there was a man named St. Nick and he was a wonderful person. When he passed away, people decided to carry on his magic of being kind and generous and ... um, no, it's not Santa who puts presents under the tree." 

Suddenly, I was unsure if this story about St. Nicholas was accurate. Nobody had done the Santa talk with me because, when I was growing up, Santa didn't come to our house.

Christmas was not a tradition in my family. As Muslims, we revere Jesus as a prophet, but celebrating his birthday was not part of our custom. My parents and I moved to British Columbia from Kenya in 1979, and our identity centred around our own language, food and festivals.

Growing up in Richmond, B.C., I don't recall feeling envious of anyone who celebrated a traditional Christmas. My family gathered for chicken biryani and samosas over the holidays, and there was community for me in this.

But I do remember people assuming that I celebrated Christmas and then being surprised — and even sorry for me — when I said I didn't. The assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas — or worse, believing that everyone should — in a multicultural country like Canada is problematic.

Now, as a parent navigating this Christmas minefield, I wondered how my parents felt when my brother and I were in elementary school and brought home painted, glittery Christmas tree ornaments.

My dad says they just accepted that this is what happened here. They didn't want to discourage us from participating in what seemed like a lovely Canadian festival, but they also wanted to hold fast to our own identity. 

I admire my parents' convictions. They didn't disrespect the mainstream traditions of their new home, and they upheld their own in a country that prides itself on its citizens doing just that. Though we didn't put up a tree and exchange gifts on Dec. 25, I returned the greeting of "Merry Christmas!" with sincerity. Christmas carols became some of my favourite pieces to play on the piano.

But when my husband and I talked about raising a family, we didn't think we would include Christmas in the traditional way. Our children, however, had other ideas.

When my oldest daughter emerged from her kindergarten class one day in November 2012, she ran toward me, pigtails and backpack flailing.

"Mommy!" she said, beaming. "Santa's going to put presents under our tree!" They had been talking about Christmas in school. 

The Jaffer family has embraced Christmas, including leaving out cookies and milk for Santa, and even some carrots for the reindeer. (Taslim Jaffer)

Although initially reluctant, we took our daughter's lead. Now, every year, on the first Sunday of December, we light our tree, hang stockings and decorate.

It feels like there is magic in our tree and handmade ornaments, in the light on dark winter evenings. It's the time of pyjama days and bottomless hot chocolate. We host a turkey dinner for our extended families (though not this year, of course). And on Christmas morning, the five of us unwrap gifts from Santa and each other. 

Christmas is still not part of my identity. But my children will have a different story. I am of that generation that adopted a new custom for the sake of the following generation that is more deeply entrenched in this country. I am also of that generation that doesn't want our past to be erased, our own festivals to be outshone.

For example, we put a special spotlight on Navroz, our New Year on the first day of spring, by dressing up, attending congregational prayers and feasting with family. My seven-year-old can name most of the spices I use to prepare Indian food several times a week (until my kids beg for burgers). And I hope my kids retain what little of my mother tongue, Kutchi-Kiswahili, I have managed to pass down to them in their English-dominated world.

While it can feel like a game of tug-of-war, I know this is a natural part of developing identity.

Maybe this is relatable for other Canadians; after all, we are a country of immigrants on First Nations land. Maybe at some point in your family history, there was someone like me. 

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Taslim Jaffer is a freelance writer and editor based in Surrey, B.C., with a special interest in culture, identity and home. She is currently working on her debut collection of essays on the same themes.