A secular Christmas

This originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

In the living room of the house in which I grew up there was a wood-burning fireplace surrounded by white bricks. Every December it was the center of all things Christmas. The armchair that stood year-round to the right of the fireplace was moved to make room for the Christmas tree, usually a six-footer with the pine aroma of the holiday. My mother hung red stockings from the mantel, decorated with our names; first mine, as the oldest; then my sister’s, my daughter’s and niece’s.

It was Christmas, but it wasn’t Christian. My family was secular, like a growing number of American families. My father came from a Jewish background. My mother was raised American Baptist. They encouraged my sister and me to find our own spiritual paths.

Still, at Christmastime our home transformed. My mother put little metal sleighs and holly on the mantel and a wreath above it that smelled of eucalyptus. Red and green candles glowed. On the evening the tree arrived, Mom brought boxes of decorations from the attic and we spent the evening hanging various objects from the pine. We hung a combination of store-bought and homemade decorations — inexpensive colored ball ornaments and wooden snowmen on which we had imperfectly hand-painted our names.

My mother baked cookies that we enjoyed only during the Christmas season: jannhagels and butter cookies formed with cut-outs of snowmen, reindeer, Santas and pine trees. And we had gifts, an abundance of gifts, wrapped with precision and with tags carefully filled out.

On a shelf in the wall-length bookcase in the dining room sat a silver menorah. When Chanukah began, my father took the menorah down from the shelf and we watched him light the small candles and recite prayers in Hebrew. The language sounded harsh to my ears; ironically, after I converted to Islam as a young adult, I began reciting prayers with words that sounded equally odd to the English-speaker’s ear. You hear the letter kha in both Hebrew and Arabic prayers. It is a sound formed at the back of the palate that does not appear in English. To my knowledge there is no kha in Christmas carols.

In the house where I grew up, Christmas was about culture and tradition. In a secular home that can be as powerful as religious icons and worship. Christmas was not the only Christian holiday that we celebrated as seculars. My sister and I decorated cooked eggs with vinegary colored paint, and on Easter morning searched the house for baskets filled with shiny green cellophane in which the eggs and lots of chocolate were hidden.

I recall attending one or two Passover Seders at paternal relatives’ homes, when I was maybe in elementary or middle school. I remember the Seder as a long and complex dinner in which I had no clue how to participate. Happily, like Easter, it involved chocolate — coins wrapped in gold foil.

In 2005 my husband and I left Houston to go on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the hajj falls on different dates throughout the year. That year it occurred in early January 2006. Our departure was during the Christmas season and we stopped to see my family before leaving for Saudi Arabia. Chanukah, the dates of which also shift by a few days, happened to occur at the time my husband and I were there.

As we left my parents’ house to start our pilgrimage, I took a last look at the  tree adorned with candy canes and tinsel, and at the silver menorah displaying the star of David — and  then I began my trip to the physical and spiritual center of Islam, my new faith tradition.