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How Different Faiths Embrace Christmas

Looking back, the question that should have really troubled me was why a religious family of Sikh Punjabi immigrants wou...

Every year there are reports of councils cancelling Christmas and replacing it with a “Happy Holiday”. This winter Oxford council renamed its Christmas lights a “winter light festival” for fear of upsetting people from other religions. Are non-Christians really offended, or are they tucking into turkey too? Claire McDonald asks four families how they celebrate.

THE HINDU FAMILY: Mahendra Dabhi, a project manager, lives with his wife and two children in Solihull

“It has become a family tradition that my wife, Jay, dresses up as Father Christmas on Christmas Day. We don't make her wear a beard, but she's got the hat, a sack and a red outfit, which she wears when she is giving presents to our daughters, Heena, 16, and Urvi, 13. There are normally 24 of us celebrating. My five sisters, their children, my wife's brother and four sisters and their children. “My sister starts making the Christmas pudding in October. She adds brandy regularly and when she unseals it on Christmas Day you can smell it from miles away! On the day we eat a traditional vegetarian Indian meal, but with a Christmas turkey and all the trimmings on the side. We marinate it the day before with a mix of spices and roast it Indian-style. To be honest, it's similar to chicken tikka. We also have Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, but not stuffing, as no one really likes it. Once we sit down we say a Hindu prayer before we eat.

“We gather together as a family several times a year, usually for religious ceremonies, spiritual functions or to mourn if someone dies. But it is only at Christmas that we have so much merriment. Although Diwali is similar to Christmas, with friends, family, presents and decorations, we also meet our extended family the day before and say joint prayers, kali chaudas.

“When I first came here from Uganda 30 years ago we didn't have special holidays for Diwali [see box] so we used Christmas as a chance to get together and made it more Hindu. When I hear that a council has banned the use of the word Christmas, my stance is simple; as Hindus we celebrate our festivals, why shouldn't you celebrate yours? After lunch we play Monopoly. The elders like to see the Queen's speech, just out of curiosity, to see what she's wearing.

“The first Christmas I spent here was when I was 16, in 1972, just after Idi Amin had expelled us. I was in a resettlement camp in Devon and some locals invited us to celebrate Christmas with them. It was a massive relief after the stress of leaving Uganda. That's where I learnt about the Christmas spirit.”

THE SIKH FAMILY: Sathnam Sanghera, a Times writer, spends Christmas with his brother-in-law, who is pictured with one of Sanghera's nephews, in Wolverhampton

“Looking back, the question that should have really troubled me was why a religious family of Sikh Punjabi immigrants would want to celebrate Christmas in the first place. Instead, all my childish anxiety went into worrying why there was such a gap between Christmas as it was on telly and Christmas as it was in our home, in Wolverhampton.

“Every year, there would be a plastic tree from Woolworths in the front room, Christmas cards from our classmates throughout the house, and, on the big day, a giant turkey for lunch. Mum would often try to jazz it up with various spicing and tandoori techniques. And among the cards there would always be a few Sikh ones making a point of wishing us a happy new year.

“Christmas Day begins with me trying to make lunch. And I say ‘trying' because my mother is getting increasingly religious and correspondingly more vegetarian, so much so that she claims to be made to feel ill by the smell of cooking meat. Last year I had to roast the turkey at my brother's house in Dudley three miles away before driving it over at 1pm.

“By this time all my siblings and their children will have arrived, and lunch is eaten in Royle Family style: plates on our laps, the Top of the Pops Christmas special blaring on TV. Occasionally my brother and I will risk a furtive glass of wine - furtive because, Mum, as another element of her increasing religiosity, won't allow alcohol in the house. After food, there will be the Queen's speech, which I will translate for Mum, while the rest of the family mock me for my bad Punjabi.

“There will then follow a fractious boardgame, which will invariably be interrupted by an unannounced visit from an Indian relative who has not realised it is Christmas. In the evening we will pop over to my brother's in-laws down the road, where we will repeat a version of the above. Albeit in that family's distinctly dysfunctional way, of course.”

"If You Don't Know Me By Now" by Sathnam Sanghera (Viking) at www.amazon.co.uk

THE MUSLIM FAMILY: Ghazhala Nizam, account manager, and her two sisters, in Streatham, South London

“We do the works for Christmas dinner. We'll begin with a nice starter, something like smoked salmon, and then we have a capon and a leg of lamb for the main meal - there are up to 20 friends and family helping us celebrate, so we need a lot.

“We used to do turkey, but then we realised no one liked it. Everything else is traditional - stuffing, roast potatoes, parsnips, carrots, Brussels sprouts - I insist on Brussels sprouts! We have vegetarian Christmas puddings, not because we are vegetarian but because the animal fat in the suet is probably not halal. You can get halal turkeys from our butcher, but you have to order them. We have mince pies but no brandy butter because drink is forbidden for Muslims, so it's a dry Christmas.

“When we were young we decorated the house for Christmas, but as we've got older they've gone up earlier, to coincide with Eid ul-Fitr (see box). I started doing this about five or six years ago when Christmas decorations were going up really early and everyone was complaining. I thought actually, I do have something to celebrate... And now I always put fairy lights up during Ramadan because it's a really festive time of year for us.

“When we were young my mum sometimes gave me and my two sisters presents, but when we didn't get them I never felt we were missing out. We get presents, usually money, for Eid, so it would be a bit much getting things twice a year. Although we celebrate Christmas, we don't celebrate it in terms of a Christian festival. For us it's the opportunity to spend quality time with friends and family.

“Christmas doesn't ‘offend' me. I think everyone has the right to celebrate their religion and, after all, we are in a Christian country. Do you think they would dampen down Eid in Turkey or Morocco?”

THE JEWISH FAMILY: Jacques Cannon, company director, his wife Amanda and son Noah, in Northwood, Middlesex

“We love Christmas. We send cards, decorate the tree, put a wreath on the door, go to Midnight Mass and make the dogs wear Christmas hats. On Christmas morning when Noah, 3, wakes up, the first thing he sees is the mince pie Father Christmas has taken a bite from and the fake snow footprints he has left on the carpet.

“I'm Jewish, my wife is Jewish, my son is Jewish and will have a Bar Mitzvah, but we don't go to the synagogue every week and we're not kosher. I think Christmas has got the feelgood factor whatever your religion. We have about 16 people for lunch. We buy a kosher turkey, but only because we think it tastes better. Then we cover it in bacon.”

Festival spirit

HINDUISM Diwali, a five-day Hindu festival of lights in October or November, celebrates the victory of good over evil. Families come together to exchange gifts, spring-clean and decorate the home with lights and flowers. Fireworks and sweets make it a favourite with children. There is singing and dancing through the night.

ISLAM Eid ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. It follows the lunar calendar and was held in September this year. Muslims decorate their homes and enjoy a celebratory meal - the first daytime meal they have had in a month. There are services in mosques and street parades. Eid al-Adha is a three-day festival in December, when Muslims remember the trials of the prophet Ibrahim.

JUDAISM Rosh Hashanah is the two-day celebration of the Jewish new year, which usually falls in September. Services are held at the synagogue and a special meal is eaten on the first evening of the festival, with apples or bread dipped in honey.

SIKHISM Vaisakhi is the Sikh new year festival and celebrates the founding of the Sikh community. It is celebrated on April 13 or 14. Sikh temples are decorated with flowers and lights and there are parades throughout the day.


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