December is a month like no other. The cold morning fog blankets the city before the night swallows the skyline as early as 4pm, when the streets become gold with festive lights. The air becomes mellow as rows of houses glisten and public squares fill with cheery spree shoppers in the lead-up to Christmas.
This is a magical time of year, especially for children. But as someone who lived two childhoods – a British one and a Pakistani one – it’s complicated.
My parents are from Pakistani descent, so at home I was raised with a Pakistani Muslim culture. Because our home would remain the same – there would be no lights, no holly hugging the mantelpiece, and no presents under a tree – every Christmas, I would immerse myself in our school’s version of Winter Wonderland. I can still picture the canteen dinners transformed into Christmas feasts, and the corridors decked with paper chains and tinsel.
Generally speaking, a lot of Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas – it’s a Christian festival after all, even if the holiday has grown beyond religion into a national cultural event. It’s become a time of year for everyone to reconnect with your loved ones, and spend time with people who care about you the most.
However, 25 December still marks a poignant day for families like mine. It’s the day Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the man who founded the country my ancestors call home, was born. So each year we celebrate the day with authentic Pakistani cuisine, cardamom chai and cake served with flavours belonging to another world. We consistently chose our Pakistani roots over Christmas; how could we share an event when our cultures were so misaligned?
But this year changed everything.
“I am British. It’s undeniable. And it’s more than being born here – it’s something seeped into my habits.”
2020 was plucked straight from a horror film: the world was ravaged by coronavirus as countries went under lockdown and we felt the strain of society practically collapsing into itself. Living in my childhood bedroom, freshly graduated with a MSc and job hunting, my plans unravelled like an old Christmas jumper. This was supposed to be my ‘gap’ year, with travel plans carrying me to six cities on three continents and an exciting potential job to start in the New Year.
Amid the chaos, however, people banded together. June made history in its own right, when the world confronted racial injustice on a global scale after the death of George Floyd. Rallies rippled across the globe, uniting people in showing truth behind police brutality and systemic racism, urging us all to reflect on our history and society.
The intense focus on race sparked a personal epiphany for me too. I took advantage of this rare opportunity of a string of lazy Sunday afternoons to actively appreciate my family’s culture.
I realised I had been dismissing my roots, tearing them away in hope I would be accepted into a white society. All this time at home made me realise I am a product of both cultures – so why not celebrate every festival within these cultures, especially with Christmas sharing a day with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s birthday?
I am British. It’s undeniable. And it’s more than being born here – it’s something seeped into my habits: in my ‘at every crisis, have a cup of tea’ mode; in my discussing the weather at every opportunity; in my being forever grateful to the NHS.
“I’ve decided to embrace who I am by celebrating Christmas for the first time. As an ode to every part of me, marking a breakthrough and joining my two cultures for the first time ever.”
But I am also Pakistani in more than just blood. I speak a language of love and elegance, albeit at a seven-year-old level. I eat food with so much spice my eyes water, but what is life without proper seasoning? I am late (but not always) and I have a fixation on finding the cheapest deals.
What I’m saying is that I am a British Pakistani woman. And with that in mind, I’ve decided to embrace who I am by celebrating Christmas for the first time. As an ode to every part of me, marking a breakthrough and joining my two cultures for the first time ever.
So now our family home twinkles with Christmas lights. Hot chocolate and gingerbread men perfume our gloomy evenings. Badly-wrapped presents are scattered across the house. Tinsel has claimed the walls, climbing up like silver ivy, echoing my school years.
Convincing my parents to celebrate Christmas also means knowing when to cut your losses, though I guarantee a dusky pine tree will proudly sit in our living room next year. Celebrating Christmas, especially during this turbulent time, has tied us together, leaving us warm and smelling of baked goods.
Of course we’ve added a South Asian twist. Our Christmas dinner will be inspired by Pakistani cuisine – samosas and the mandatory biriyani will complement a turkey (smothered with seasoning) and our side dishes of sprouts and roast potatoes (maybe to be turned into an aloo gobi?) Dessert won’t be an alcohol-drenched Christmas pudding, but a birthday cake for the man who made our home.
2020 has been turmoil, from the lockdown fights to heart-breaking news to not knowing what the future holds. But it’s also been a year where my family has grown together. We’ve combined British culture with Pakistani, accepting who we are with no compromises. So with the rest of the country, we will celebrate. We will feast, we will watch bad films, we will hold our breath for snow, and yes we will fight.
But we will be together for the most wonderful time of the year.
Hiyah Zaidi is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @hiyahzaidi
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