Having grown up in an international city, (Abadan, in Iran) my family attended Christmas celebrations and parties thrown in honor of the Westerners working there. However, like other Muslim families, we never celebrated Christmas at home. We didn’t put up a tree, go caroling or exchange gifts. That all changed once I came to the US.
I spent my first Christmas with the family that eventually became my in-laws. Not having anywhere to go as foreign students, Kathy, my wife's, Karen, sister, who worked at the language school we attended, took a few of us to her house for Christmas. In the last forty years, except for one, I have spent every Christmas with my in-laws.
Christmas was huge with my in-laws. The McCarts and their extended family sure knew how to celebrate the day. Christmas was a month-long event filled with evenings at home watching Christmas programs on TV, wrapping gifts, having friends over for dinner, making elegant decorations, putting up the tree, shopping, and above all, loading up the living room with so many gifts that you almost couldn’t fit any people. I have never seen so many gifts being exchanged. In those early years of being in the States, I really looked forward to the Christmas season. That was, until, I became a pastor.
As long as our Iranian church was small, we were not obligated to do anything for Christmas. But, as the church grew and we became more and more Americanized, our church culture changed. Now we were obligated to celebrate Christmas the way all other American churches celebrated the season: WE HAD TO HAVE CHRISTMAS PROGRAMS.
All the churches we knew had choirs for Christmas, so we had to have one. Even a heathen American can, at least, sing a few bars of Silent Night, but not so with us Iranian Muslim-Background Believers. For example, Iranian songs are mostly in minor keys. We are simply not accustomed to singing Western songs. So, except for a few Iranian-Jewish believers who had come out of Iran as Christians, hitting the right notes in a popular Christmas song was not what the rest of the church was capable of doing. Unfortunately, almost all Christian songs we had available to us were translations of the Western songs. What I experienced in selecting singers for our world-renowned choir is something that could rob anyone of the joy of this season.
Karen has always marveled at how bold Iranians are. For starters, we have no fear of the microphone. We all believe we have something to contribute, and you'd better listen to us while we contribute it. So, the whole church wanted to be in the choir and I had to oblige, lest I hurt someone's feelings. How do you tell someone that not only can they not sing, but that his voice is downright offensive — or as we say in Farsi, "It can actually scratch the listener’s soul"? After holding out as long as I could, I finally had to be honest with a few of these individuals and ended up losing them as church members.
I will not bother you with the logistics of the choir practice — getting people to show up for rehearsals, arguing over something being "too American" or hearing people murmur, “That’s not the way Americans do it” — I don’t even want to go near the issue of trying to teach them how to sway back and forth in unison to some songs. There is no swaying with Iranians. Any hint of dancing automatically turns into full-blown belly dancing with hip gyration and breast shaking.
Alas, what’s a Christmas program without the Nativity play using those innocent and pure children? Every parent wanted their child to be Mary, Joseph, the Magi or the Angel. I lost members because their kids ended up playing the livestock or the shepherds.
But wait...There's more.
Then came the official church Christmas meal. After all, what’s a Christmas party without a delicious Persian meal? You would think assigning certain meals to certain individuals would have been the end of the issue. But, NO! “How come I have been assigned to cook this when my specialty is that?” were among many complaints. Worst were the ladies who insisted in knowing whose meal the pastor thought was better. I had WWIII on my hands if I didn’t feel that Mrs. A’s rice was not as good as Mrs. B’s rice. I lost many Mrs. from the congregation over this because they felt people didn't appreciate the way they made their rice!
I wish the way we were robbed of Christmas was only limited to my Iranian congregation. Well, it wasn’t. We were also heavily involved with an American mega-church where Karen was employed.
Weeks before Christmas, almost every evening, every staff member would work way into the night, working at different events, setting up hundreds of Poinsettia plants in the sanctuaries, decorating Christmas trees and lampposts on the street in front of the church and its parking lots, and selling tickets for the shows, which no matter what, had to be bigger and better than any other church. The Christmas programs went on for a whole week and all the staff was obligated to attend and work at least one of those boring events. For most, if not all, of the employees of that church, Christmas was nothing but stress, stress and more stress.
After years of doing Christmas like that, (where instead of following the McCart tradition of fully enjoying the season, my wife and I spent all our time away from home, trying to find time to put up our own tree, forgetting Christmas lights on the house, losing time to bake, and dragging the kids to church or just leaving them at home alone because they were too burned out) I began to resent the whole season. There was no joy in celebrating our Lord’s birthday since we piled it up with so much baggage.
May I offer you a suggestion? Don’t make the mistake I made. Don’t confuse Christmas with another church program. I am not banning Christmas celebrations from church. I’m all for celebrating. Party till the cows come home. The question you should ask yourself is, “At what price?” No church activity is worth robbing anyone of his God given contentment.
Isn’t it interesting that some of us evangelicals, accuse the world of commercializing Christmas, yet we’re not willing to recognize what we have done to suck the life out of a season that is synonymous with JOY? I don’t know about you, but any more, I’d rather have a commercialized Christmas than a joyless one.