Mylar garlands. Muzak Jingle Bells. Santa hats. The normal gaudy props of American Christmas.
I was surprised to encounter similar items when I spent time in non-Christian countries. In Singapore, a hotel lobby nearly the size of a football field greeted us with a half dozen flocked trees. In Delhi last year, a group of child carolers, who surely didn’t know the meaning of the words, warbled “Silver Bells” and “Holly Jolly Christmas” outside our restaurant.
In Turkey, where I spent three years, huge, cone-shaped “trees” stood in shopping malls. Grocery stores devoted aisles to wrapping paper and ornaments. And Santa Clauses of all sizes appeared, made of ceramic, wood and felt. How appropriate: the original St. Nicholas was the 4th century bishop of Myra, a town in southern Turkey.
Turks seemed downright enthusiastic about Christmas. Artificial trees with presents underneath adorned friends’ apartments. Wrapping up a sweater for me, a shop clerk confided, “Ever since I was a child, I loved Christmas!” And a fellow teacher whose research papers I’d helped edit presented me with a beautifully-wrapped music box that played Deck the Halls.
Clearly coziness and sentimentality are part of the worldwide appeal of Christmas. But does that appeal have anything to do with Christmas’ deeper meaning? To help answer that, I thought about how I approach others’ religious celebrations. I tend to first ask the reason. And then I want to know the details. In Turkey I learned that the Muslim world’s most significant religious observance centers on the prophet Abraham’s faithfulness in agreeing to sacrifice his only son. Muslims observe this by slaughtering sheep and giving meat to the poor, but the observance has also evolved into the purchase of new clothes and the preparation of special meals.
Actually, I already had my answer. Each December my Muslim friends send me greetings. And they are invariably, “Mary Christmas.” In past years I’ve tried to correct them, tried to explain the word, merry. But then I stopped. I realized that the mistake was really an attempt to get at something more profound.
The secular aspects of Christmas—decorations, songs, Santas—are the easiest for our foreign friends to grab onto. But those who observe the holiday, even in a tiny way, are acknowledging a Christian custom. In these times, that feels like a gift. In gratitude, I hang a couple of whirling dervish ornaments on my tree.
To read about the history of St. Nicholas, go to: