For many Arabs in the US, Christmas is a long-time tradition

Christmas California
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
24 December, 2021
Many Arabs of all faiths across the US celebrate Christmas. During the festival period, Arabs mix both old traditions that hark back to their origins, and new traditions brought about through multicultural interaction.

Christmas for Arabs has taken many forms in the United States over the years – from a solemn midnight mass to bright lights and gift-giving. What does seem to be a constant for people of all faiths is the gathering of family and community – whether it’s traditional or modern.     

Vicki Tamous, whose grandparents came to the US from Syria and Lebanon, has Christmas memories that span more than six decades in southern California. Some of her earliest memories of the holiday include going to mass, eating her grandmother’s Arab home cooking, and doing her best to keep up with the Dabke line.  

"We’re influenced by Arab culture and the culture where we live, and now the Covid culture and the California environment that our particular family is in. It’s four different sets of cultural aspects at play"

“Over the years, little American things made their way into a meal,” she tells The New Arab. “I remember the first time I saw that cranberry sauce that comes in a can. To me, it looked very pretty, and I wanted to play with it. The fact that it could stain my fingers and clothes made it even more attractive – until I knew what it tasted like.”

Fortunately, for her taste buds, her family kept most of their Arab culinary traditions intact.

With the ongoing pandemic, her family’s traditions have entered a new phase. This was the first time since the outbreak of Covid-19 that they have had a holiday gathering. Southern California’s mild climate allowed them to sit together outdoors, they wore masks and sat at a distance, and they were all told beforehand that they could opt-out of hugs and kisses with no offence taken.

“It did feel good to get together. It was another difference to get used to,” Tamoush says. “I guess we’re influenced by Arab culture and the culture where we live, and now the Covid culture and the California environment that our particular family is in. It’s four different sets of cultural aspects at play.”

After describing her own experiences, she is quick to emphasise that she has friends who are Muslim or not Christian who put much more work into their Christmas celebrations.

Ryan Hamze, who grew up between the United States, Canada, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, comes from a Druze household. This year, he and his new wife, Sandra, are celebrating their first Christmas together in Wichita, Kansas. Their tree includes decorations from different places where they've travelled. For him, Christmas has always been cultural and not religious.

"For us Palestinians, it’s critical to keep that message [of Christmas] alive. It’s about peace. It’s about families getting together. Here in the US, people get stressed out focusing on gifts. It’s really commercial, and it loses the real idea"

“For Muslims and Druze, it’s a cultural thing. People get into the spirit of things. It’s almost everywhere,” he tells The New Arab. “Wherever you are people always pushing for Christmas. It’s very hard to ignore the commercial side. I have a Christmas tree at home and at the office. People ask if I celebrate Christmas, and I say everyone does.”

Ryan Hamze celebrates Christmas with friends in Miami. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Hamze)
Ryan Hamze celebrates Christmas with friends in Miami (Photo courtesy of Ryan Hamze)

The holiday coincides with another important day: the birthday of his husky dog, Valkyrie. For the occasion, his mum is making a dog Christmas sweater, and they will celebrate with a dog birthday cake.

For Majed Moughni, growing up in Dearborn, Michigan, whose population is around half Arab, Muslims and Christians celebrating one another’s holidays is par for the course. For him, Christmas is about giving. This year and last year, with the pandemic preventing people from celebrating in person, he tells The New Arab that he and his family have focused on donating food to the local pantry and donating toys for children.

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Wafa Shami, who grew up in Ramallah and now lives in southern California, has experienced a stark contrast between her original and current homes. She has memories of going to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and long home visits to family and neighbours, and now having to think about gift excesses when shopping for her seven-year-old son.

When asked if Christmas in America is too commercial, she laughs. “Oh, yes, definitely. No offence. My son’s dad and I are trying to figure out how many gifts for our son is reasonable. And then there’s the wrapping paper,” she tells The New Arab. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s fine, but they lose the idea.”

She says, “Bethlehem is a few miles from Ramallah. It’s right where Christ was born. For us Palestinians, it’s critical to keep that message alive. It’s about peace. It’s about families getting together. Here in the US, people get stressed out focusing on gifts. It’s really commercial, and it loses the real idea.”

Shami, a food blogger and children’s author, says she plans on writing a book for children about the meaning of Christmas.

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews