This article was published in the Birmingham Post on 23rd December 2009 when I was Head of RE at Kings Norton Girls’ School. It can also be read here.
This year, in my new role as Head of Religious Education at a Birmingham secondary school, I was asked if I would mind speaking at the annual whole school Christmas assembly.
My predecessor, an esteemed local priest who had been at the school for more than 30 years and hence had become an institution himself, usually played a key part on such occasions, presenting readings from the Bible betwixt the traditional carol singing and narration of the nativity story.
Conscious that I am a Muslim, the Assistant Headteacher who approached me seemed apprehensive about my response. She need not have been, for I have the utmost respect for Jesus, whom the Qur’an recognises as a great Prophet of God, and so I was absolutely delighted.
Perhaps unbeknown to many, Muslims too commemorate Christ’s life at this time of year. Though we may not consider December 25th as having much relevance to his birth (and few Christians now would disagree), it still presents a wonderful opportunity to remember his example and teachings as an inspiration to us all – and his blessed mother too.
Both Jesus and Mary are mentioned more times in the Qur’an than even the Prophet Muhammad, and countless Muslim parents continue to name their children ‘Isa or Maryam after them. Whenever they are mentioned, Muslims are required to say ‘peace be upon him’ and ‘peace be upon her’ respectively.
In my talk I referred to the English poet Thomas Tusser’s stanza, “At Christmas, play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year”, and asked the 800 pupils (and colleagues!) to reflect upon whether that was what Jesus’ appearance on earth was supposed to be all about.
I also asked how Jesus himself would have wanted his memory honoured: through wild spending, elaborate house decorations and drinking excessively, or something more meaningful? After all, this was a man who preferred to live a life of simplicity, self-restraint and serving the weak.
There is nothing wrong with “play and good cheer” of course. I also shared with the students my recent celebration of Eid as a festival where similarly good food is enjoyed and gifts are exchanged, but for a higher purpose: to mark the beginning of a new commitment to our faith and the spirit of sacrifice for the sake of others.
And isn’t that what Jesus’ most celebrated utterance “love thy neighbour” represents?
But it is a teaching – one promoted by all the great religious founders in fact – worth valuing and celebrating only if it is demonstrated more than simply once a year.
Maybe that should apply to everyone whether Christian or not, believers in God or not. Otherwise it does seem slightly unfair on the man without whom this joyous season for us all wouldn’t really take place.
Christmas can then become an experience we can relive more often throughout the year. As the late American actress, Dale Evans, so rightly put it, “Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it’s Christmas.”