Updated: Apr 29
Hanan Mohammed, Guest Writer
Recently, my social psychology professor asked us to debate whether or not Americans are truly free to be their individual selves or if the societal pressures to conform are too much to assert our true, unique individuality. My initial reaction was to argue that America is “The Land of The Free'', and each of us are starkly different. However, as a Muslim-American, my experience with Christmas has caused me to reconsider.
If I were to ask you how many times a day Muslims pray, would you know the answer is five? What about if I asked you what Moksha was, would you know that it’s the final goal of all Hindus? How about if I were to ask you what colors are most associated with Christmas? I’d bet that you immediately had vivid visions of red, green, and white. See the problem?
Throughout my life, I was taught that America respects all religions and favors none; However, when it comes to our day to day activities, I find it impossible to ignore the overwhelming presence of traditions, norms, and festivities that have very clear Christian roots. This presence seems to manifest itself most during the month of December, when the joy associated with Christmas seems to transform from a Christian holiday to a mandated American tradition.
In my freshman year of high school, my sister, a few Muslim friends, and I decided to start a Muslim Student Association (MSA) on campus to create a community between Muslims at the school. However, before we could even initiate the club, our principal informed us that we could not take time out of the school day to pray together, host events on campus, invite any guest speaker, or participate in any school activities under the banner of Muslim Student Association.
Her reasoning was that, according to school regulations, no religion could be endorsed over the other. Therefore, there could be absolutely no type of religious awareness, events, or education work done on campus grounds. Seeing that the same rules would apply to any other religious clubs, we agreed and ensured that the club followed all school guidelines, which rendered the club virtually ineffective.
However, when December came that year, the same high school that would not allow us to host any religiously-sponsored events made Christmas suddenly become a school-wide festival. Initially, I assumed that this holiday celebration was simply a tradition for my specific high school. As I have transitioned to college and reached out to my peers, I realized that the overwhelming pressure to celebrate Christmas is the symptom of a larger, more institutionalized problem: a lack of inclusion and diversity.
Accepting this as the reality of any marginalized individual living amongst the majority of white, Christian America. Although you are undoubtedly American, society seems to say otherwise.
As a Muslim, Indian-American, the holiday season throughout high school has repeatedly left me feeling like a stranger in my own country and my own home, suffocating under the pressure to behave like a “normal” American. On several occasions, I found myself purposefully excited whenever a person would wish me Merry Christmas, feeling the need to compensate for my lack of celebration by faking enthusiasm and exhibiting the typical “Christmas joy”.
During the school days, I found myself exaggerating my excitement for the holidays, divulging that I couldn’t wait to spend more time with my family, sipping hot chocolate, and watching seasonal movies like Home Alone.
While seemingly immaterial, these little gestures are symbolic of the pressure to conform that leaves no room for individuality. This is most symbolized when my former high school brought in a lavishly decorated Christmas tree full of colorful ornaments and glittering tinsel in early-December. Placed in the center of the school, the tree was a constant, unavoidable representation of Christmas, and a subtle reminder that other religious holidays were not given the same respect or appreciation.
Between class transitions, Christmas music was played over the intercom, so the holiday spirit could not go ignored in any room or hallway. Throughout the month, wrapped present boxes were placed under the tree, and a competition was announced between the grade levels to donate the largest amount of canned goods in the spirit of “the holidays”.
Although initiated with good intention, I wondered why such an inspiring competition wasn’t held, or even allowed, during the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, which is a month-long devotion to helping the poor and needy.
During the last week of school before winter break, our school, which had a daily uniform and rarely announced free dress days, announced that we could dress down in specific daily themes: Monday being red, Tuesday being green, Wednesday being white, Thursday being blue, and Friday culminating with an “ugly holiday sweater” themed day.
Of all the Christmas celebrations, this was the hardest to digest because, as any normal teenager would, I savored any opportunity to showcase my wardrobe to my peers. However, my one chance to represent my individuality was also connected to Christmas. Essentially, I could not even show my peers who I was without having to conform to Christian tradition.
Little by little, I realized that Christmas is no longer simply a religious celebration. Instead, the fervent passion with which it is practiced and preached in American institutions has allowed it to become an undeniably American tradition.
Failing to exemplify this Christmas spirit, whether by action or by word of mouth, is essentially seen as a transgression against societal norms, returned with a somewhat subtle yet conscious societal ostracization that has silenced marginalized groups from speaking up for far too long.
This pressure to celebrate Christmas is experienced in nearly every aspect of the American public life, not just in American schools. Workplaces, universities, hospitals, libraries, public transits, government buildings, and other such institutions all imbue Christmas traditions into our daily activities.
While I admire and appreciate the values that Christmas commemorates, such as love, gratitude, family, and kindness, Americans should not feel obligated to celebrate a Christian holiday. Such pressure suffocates diversity and silences personal identities.
The journey to making America more inclusive is quite laborious. The first step is a monumental change in traditional school practices. Allowing Christmas trees to be put up, carols to be played, and hosting White Elephant giveaways should be entirely prohibited. Next, whenever a holiday is approaching, whether it is Christian or not, children should be taught about general practices or concepts to maintain a sense of equality and inclusivity.
Rather than having all students learn solely about one religion’s holiday, all children have an opportunity to showcase their religious beliefs.
Simply advocating for equality within schools is not the magical answer that will suddenly make America more inclusive. Instead, it begins as a call to action for each American to become more informed and develop a greater understanding of each other. In the end, as Andres Tapia stated, “Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work.”