Audio slideshow: A Muslim Christmas on Long Island

Many Muslim-Americans celebrate Christmas since the holiday has become part of American culture (LIR Photo by Farhan Husain)

Christmas is turning into a cultural holiday for some Muslims in the Long Island area as they celebrate the occasion with gifts, decorations and family gatherings.

Indeed, it’s becoming almost a custom to celebrate Christmas for most Muslim-Americans. Many came from countries that don’t even have a word for  “Christmas,” but it becomes almost inevitable to join in with friends and neighbors who go “holiday-crazy” during this time of year.

“It’s really just celebrating the season,” said Asra Arif, a Hofstra University student and Deer Park resident. “It’s the only time of the year where families don’t have work.”

Arif is a first-generation Muslim-American with Pakistani parents. Her family, like many others, has made it a tradition to gather with loved ones and exchange gifts during Christmas time.

Many Muslim-Americans celebrate Christmas since the holiday has become part of American culture (LIR Photo by Farhan Husain)

Many Muslim-Americans celebrate Christmas since the holiday has become part of American culture (LIR Photo by Farhan Husain)

“Growing up, we did have a Christmas tree… I think just because he [her father] didn’t want us to feel left out,” she said.

However, unlike Christian and Catholic families who celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ every Dec. 25, Arif’s family celebrates the atmosphere of the holidays.

“I just enjoy the spirit of it,” she said. “I’m not celebrating anything religious…just being with family.”

Dafina Mexhuani, 22, a retail manager from Westbury, said she does the same.

“It’ll be celebrating to the extent of, not really Christmas…but the whole decorating, and the gift giving,” she said. “But if you call that celebrating it, then I guess I am.”

She celebrates a holiday with her family every year around Christmas time but doesn’t call it Christmas.

“I grew up in an apartment building, and my dad was the super,” she said. “We always used to put up a tree in the lobby, and so we started doing it in my house. It’s just how it’s always been really.”

Mexhuani was born in the Bronx, but the rest of her family were born and raised in Albania. Still, she’s never experienced a year without Christmas.

“The idea of Christmas we just think of generally as a winter holiday, so we don’t necessarily celebrate it or have a significant religious attachment to it,” said Mehreen Syeda, 27, of New Hyde Park.

Syeda will once agin be celebrating the holiday season with her Pakistani-American family. Though she was not born or raised in the U.S., Syeda and her family wrap and exchange presents, solely to be part of something that happens culturally around them.

“I think it’s important for kids to be knowing what their friends are going to be doing, and why they’re doing what they’re doing,” she said when describing how she was going to handle the holiday season with her children.

Syeda said she would never steer her children away from experiencing Christmas, though she would draw a fine line between religion and culture.

Some Muslims dislike the idea of celebrating Christmas as the “holiday season.” Holiday trimmings like Christmas trees and stocking stuffers tend to be associated with Christmas, so some choose to avoid these altogether while still pleasing their children.

“We do give gifts, but we don’t have a tree or any of that up,” said Hofstra student Armend Cobovic, 20, of Manhattan. “It’s not a Muslim holiday; therefore, we don’t celebrate it.”

Cobovic and his family hail from Montenegro. They knew about Christmas before they moved here 16 years ago, but he was surprised to see that other Muslim-Americans celebrate Christmas.

“I think they [Muslim-Americans] are stuck into society nowadays instead of going back to their own culture,” he said.

Thought he doesn’t celebrate Christmas, he does exchange gifts during the holidays for another reason.

“I understand getting a present just so your child isn’t left out, but say it’s for new year,” he said.

Click on an individual town on the map below to hear each of the Muslim-American students’ thoughts on celebrating Christmas.

With New Year’s Eve and other religious holidays around the end of December, it’s one of the rare times during the year that families get to spend quality time with each other.

Stony Brook resident Musho Kolenovic, 19, always gets together with his family at their house in upstate New York during Christmas time.

“It’s one of the few times in the year where everyone has off, and we can meet up and just have good old family time,” he said.

His family does exchange gifts during this time of the year, but they never call it “celebrating Christmas” because they never put up lights or a tree.

“I’ll take the presents over the tree anytime,” he said.

Whether they call it Christmas or not, Muslim-Americans still enjoy the family time, gifts for children and the spirit of the holidays.

“Not that my parents are opposed to it…I think their culture is different,” said Hofstra student Sameera Namazi, 22, of Valley Stream. “They aren’t used to celebrations like we are.”

Culture in America has adopted Christmas as part of being an American, and Namazi has no issue with this.

“Muslims do believe in Jesus, we can commemorate his birth,” she said about celebrating Christmas. “So if we want to, we can.”

Originally published on Dec. 10, 2010.