Canada·First Person

Merry Eid! Here's how I try to hold onto my Canadian traditions in Pakistan

As a first-generation immigrant, Aysha Imtiaz grew up with Canadian traditions. Now that she’s returned to Pakistan, she wonders how she can pass on these memories to her Pakistani-born kids.

I want my children to sample Christmas cake as much as aloo bharta

An illustration of a woman and three children gazing out of a window at the moon.
In this illustration, Aysha Imtiaz and her children gaze at a starry night from their home in Karachi, Pakistan. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

This First Person column is the experience of Aysha Imtiaz who lived in Canada as a teenager and later as an adult. She is a Canadian permanent resident who moved back to Pakistan. This column was originally published in May 2022. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

It's 33 C and sweat snakes into our eyelashes in the oppressively humid air — equal parts smog and sea vapour. Wilted humans and listless animals wait for the next monsoon shower to wash away concentric circles of crusty white sweat. 

But my kids and I? We're making "snow" (read: monsoon puddle) angels on our flat rooftop in Karachi, Pakistan. Because along with Eid-al-Fitr (one of two major festivals in the Islamic calendar) for us, it's also the holiday season. And holidays remind me of Christmases past and the lingering remnants of my childhood in Canada. 

We often hear of the challenges faced by first-generation immigrants as their children embrace traditions in Canada. But what happens when it's the other way around? When you're the repatriated first-generation immigrant, and you find yourself yearning for traditions you once embraced as your own?

Growing up, I remember all too vividly the warmth that cocooned my holiday celebrations — even in the frigid cold. I loved watching my neighbourhood in Vaughan, Ont., transform to a winter wonderland and the spirit of generosity that permeated everyone. And that festive spirit went both ways. 

My mother would share heaped pakora iftar platters with our Canadian neighbours during Ramadan, a deeply spiritual month of worship, abstinence and fasting preceding Eid-al-Fitr, colloquially called meethi or sweet Eid. After the rigour of the month, Eid was like our sweet reward, and she ensured our family celebrated it in Technicolor — complete with mehndi, glass bangles and the fanciest desi clothes she could scrounge up — even when we weren't in my homeland.

And in a way, Christmas was like that, too. A happy occasion complete with gifts from Santa for being good all year. Like a caffeine shot in turmeric milk, the advent of the holiday season just made everything a little bit better and our dual heritage turned it into a warm embrace. 

When I had children of my own, I knew I wanted to distill that Canadian festive spirit and diffuse it into our own celebrations.

Two children lie on their bellies during a storm.
Aysha Imtiaz’s children make “monsoon angels” on the rooftop of their home in Pakistan. (Aysha Imtiaz)

The Islamic lunar calendar has 354 days instead of 365 so the festivals aren't pegged to a definitive Gregorian calendar date. Something like Eid may fluctuate by approximately 10 days each year, meaning my Islamic-roots festivals have always coincided with different holidays from my childhood, leading to a sort of temporal fluidity and flexibility in the way I approach them. 

So during festivals such as Eid-al-Fitr, we accompany the traditional cash-stuffed envelope (called eidhi) with wrapped gifts like on Christmas, "sled" down dirt hills or slides with a piece of cardboard and melt jaggery to make a desi version of maple syrup. We make snowballs in the bathroom with ice that accumulates in my freezer and breaks off during frequent power outages. Our dinner table always has chicken breast as a substitute for turkey and mashed potatoes even though the aloo bharta style caters more to my family's spicy palette. 

And we carve green bottle gourd instead of orange pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns during Halloween, because orange pumpkins are so exorbitantly priced here. We string up dupatta cobwebs, imagine crocheted doilies are spooky, and go trick-or-treating from room to room in the comfort of our own house lest the neighbours think we're odd. 

It's not always easy though. 

Christmas lights strung up indoors.
Aysha Imtiaz has strung up Christmas lights in her kitchen to remind her of her childhood in Vaughan, Ont. (Aysha Imtiaz)

"Chwistmas lights!" my then three-year-old daughter lisped once, only to be admonished by a well-meaning relative. 

"We're Muslims," the relative chided, though I don't know how having my children innocently call them Christmas lights jeopardized our faith. My faith is strong enough to know that the essence of belief isn't as polarized as rigid scholars would have us believe. As Muslims, we also revere Jesus as a prophet of God. 

It's funny how cherishing these small traditions from my Canadian heritage becomes an act of defiance. Christmas cookie-cutters must be hidden from prying eyes. My children know they need to call a gingerbread man a plain old regular man to avoid getting into trouble, and when I share Christmas cake, whether it's during Eid or in December, I make sure I call it fruit cake. Still, we persevere. 

Because when I string up Christmas lights at Eid — or fairy lights, to be "politically correct," I know I'm not forsaking my own religion for another. I'm just conjuring up a ritualistic and nostalgic aura of warmth, happiness and joy. 

Of freedom. 

Three children sit on a swing decorated with flowers and Christmas lights.
Aysha Imtiaz’s husband and children celebrate Eid with flowers and Christmas lights as a nod to her Pakistani and Canadian upbringing. (Aysha Imtiaz)

And that's the best holiday gift I could ever hope for, both as a Muslim in Canada and a Canadian in Pakistan. 

Cherry-picking our experiences with this fluid inclusivity has allowed me to expose my children to the best of both worlds and teach them to appreciate that even though we live in an age of divisiveness, we really aren't too different after all. 

Maybe this means my heritage is nowhere. 

Maybe it's everywhere. 

And maybe, without ever having set foot on a plane, my childrens' will be too. 

With our simple and unique traditions, I know my kids can learn to celebrate the similarities — rather than the differences — between various faiths and facets of the holiday seasons. 

I know we can still say, "Eh, have maple syrup … and celebrate a very merry Eid." 

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Aysha Imtiaz

Freelance contributor

Aysha Imtiaz is a teacher by day, a mom 24/7 and a writer and editor in between.