NEWS
19/12/2020 08:10 GMT | Updated 19/12/2020 08:10 GMT

We Sacrificed Our Religious Festivals, So Why Is Christmas Different?

Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews talk about the "emptiest year imaginable" and the emotional toll of having their celebrations cancelled.

From Diwali, Bandi Chhor Divas and Vaisakhi, to Rosh Hashana, Hanukkah, to Ramadan and Eid, millions of people from different faiths have had their festivals cancelled this year.

But Christmas, as we know, will be different

“I’m not the type of person who thinks: ‘We didn’t have our festival so you shouldn’t have yours’, as that would be petty,” May Batul, a healthcare student living in Derby, tells HuffPost UK.

“I know how disappointing it was, and don’t want Christmas to be cancelled as I don’t want people to be deprived of what Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs were.

“But it’s dangerous and stinks of exceptionalism.”

This week, Boris Johnson said to “cancel Christmas” would be “inhuman, and against the instincts of the many people of this country”.

But for many people who don’t celebrate Christian festivals, the prime minister’s words have only cemented feelings of “otherness”.

“Covid doesn’t take time off or know it’s Christmas,” says Anika Hussain, 24. “It doesn’t discriminate in the sense of religion. Even though it’s really difficult making these sacrifices, we all have to think of other people.” 

Anika Hussain
Anika Hussain, who spent Eid without her family for the first time this year

Anika, 24, a Muslim, usually spends Eid with her family who live in Sweden. But this year, Ramadan and Eid-al-Fitr took place when the UK was in the grip of the first lockdown.

“It was the first time in my life I wasn’t able to be with my family for Eid which was really difficult,” admitted Anika, an administrator at Bath Spa University and a children’s author.

“It was tough being away from my family. When I phoned them, my mum was heartbroken and crying.”

Instead, Anika came up with an alternative Eid and did a Zoom call with her friend’s family while eating pizza. “It’s really difficult on Zoom as people talk over each other and the connection often drops out. It wasn’t anything like having my mum’s home cooked dishes.”

Anika Hussain
Anika Hussain, with her mum before going to the mosque on a happier Eid

Anika sympathises with people who have missed out on their religious festivals and understands Christmas is an important family time, but she feels the government’s messaging has been insensitive.

“It is unjustified and unfair to treat Christmas differently,” she said. “It gives you a feeling of ‘otherness’ and makes you feel worse when you’re already a minority.

“Yes, it’s hard making sacrifices and not seeing family and friends. But I’ve done it and so have so many people. We need to think of vulnerable people rather than being selfish.

“If people have big gatherings at Christmas, coronavirus rates will spike again and we’ll be in an endless cycle of lockdown.”

For Muslims in some parts of the country, Eid at the end of July was cancelled with just a few hours notice after the government suddenly imposed new lockdown rules forbidding separate households from meeting.

“The last minute cancellation of Eid seemed very callous as most people would have already bought all the food and prepared a lot of the cooking,” said May Batul, 20, a healthcare student living in Derby.

“They should have at least been given more notice.”

May and her family made the best of the situation and decorated their home and painted their hands with henna. They also made sweet jars to post to friends and family.

May Batul
May Batul decorated her hands with henna for Eid

May told HuffPost UK that while she was disappointed, she understands why cancelling Eid was necessary. This makes it all the more difficult for her to fathom why restrictions are being lifted for Christmas.

“It feels very irresponsible when the data seems to suggest there will be a spike in deaths in late December and January,” she said. “We could have saved Christmas and other festivals long ago if the government had handled this pandemic properly and had a better test and trace system.

“It feels hypocritical and unfair to relax the rules for Christmas after the way they handled everyone else’s festivals.”

Devout Sikh Mandeep Singh, who lives in Southall, told HuffPost UK that despite constantly preaching: “We’re all in this together”, the government’s actions surrounding Christmas show “favouritism” to one faith.

Mandeep Singh
Mandeep Singh says the Sikh community missed out on numerous festivals due to the coronavirus crisis

“Where is the equality?” he asked. “Culturally, it isn’t treating people the same. It is not a level playing field when we have all made huge sacrifices this year.”

It has been the emptiest year imaginable. People feel they’ve lost part of their faith.

Mandeep, 42, a primary school teacher who lives with his wife and his mother, says the Sikh community experienced a very different Vaisakhi, one of the highlights of their religious calendar in April during the height of the coronavirus crisis.

“There would normally have been a large street festival for Vaisakhi in Southall and people would have congregated in gurdwaras throughout the day with prayers, singing, lots of food and a communal meal.

“But all this just disappeared globally due to coronavirus.”

Mandeep says Sikhs missed out on many other festivals – including Bandi Chhor Divas, known as the ‘day of liberation’ and Diwali in November. These would usually have seen fireworks, gatherings in gurdwaras and families mingling in homes. But as these festivals occurred during the second lockdown, none of this could happen.

“It has been the emptiest year imaginable,” said Mandeep. “People feel they’ve lost part of their faith.”

The most recent Sikh celebration, again a subdued affair, was Gurpurab, which took place on Monday November 30 – during the second lockdown. “Gurpurab celebrates the birth of our founder Guru Nanak – so is the equivalent of Christmas celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ,” said Mandeep.

He is horrified coronavirus restrictions are being relaxed for Christmas despite the warnings of scientists and medics.

“Not only is relaxing the rules a very unjust thing to do, it is totally reckless,” he said. “The worst time for the virus to spread is during the winter months. 

“Sikhs have had to miss our celebrations and people from other faiths have had to miss theirs. So why is Christmas any different?

“You don’t want this Christmas to be your relative’s final Christmas.

Shipra Jain Khanna, an actress, dancer and engineer, has lived in the UK for nine years since moving here from Mumbai. She and husband Yash are Hindus and being so far from India, celebrating festivals with friends is usually extremely important to them.

Shipra Jain Khanna
Shipra Jain Khanna, moved to the UK from India nine years ago, says treating Christmas differently to other festivals makes her feel like a "second rate citizen"

“Diwali is such a communal festival and we normally celebrate it with friends, eat together and exchange presents. It’s like getting a feeling of home,” she explained.

But this year, it was just Shipra and her husband. Although they tried to celebrate by decorating their home and carrying out prayers, she admits it wasn’t the same.

Before the relaxing of rules for Christmas was announced, Shipra discovered an online petition pushing for any easing of restrictions to apply to all religious events. When she shared it on her social media, she received a backlash from people saying coronavirus wouldn’t just go away for one day.

“I didn’t want to party or meet up with lots of people,” Shipra told HuffPost UK. “Just meeting some friends in a social bubble while social distancing would have been enough. People would have welcomed this for Diwali or Eid.

“But now they’ve relaxed the rules for Christmas for five days allowing three households to meet, it makes me feel angry. How can they justify that?

“As a minority, it makes me feel marginalised. My husband and I came to the UK as he was transferred for work and we pay our taxes and contribute to the economy.

“But when something like this happens, it makes me feel less valued and like a second rate citizen.” 

Shipra Jain Khanna
Shipra Jain Khanna and her husband Yash celebrating Diwali alone at home this year
Shipra Jain Khanna
Shipra Jain Khanna and her husband Yash celebrating Diwali with friends in a previous year

Shipra added: “This is a developed country and talks about acceptance and equality. But it feels like this doesn’t happen in practice.”

Fellow Hindu Priya Jotangia, 33, who lives in Leicester told HuffPost UK that hearing the coronavirus rules were being relaxed for Christmas felt like “a slap in the face”.

“It made me realise the UK isn’t as inclusive as I thought,” she said. “As diverse as the UK is, we need to be brutally honest. Diwali and Eid are massive – but no relaxation was made for them.

“Is it all about the commercial aspect of Christmas and wanting people to spend lots of money?

“To then find they are relaxing everything for Christmas is deflating. When we’ve got to where we need as a country with the R rate, why undo all that hard work now? It doesn’t make sense.”

Priya Jotangia
Priya Jotangia, 33, a Hindu, says hearing coronavirus rules were being relaxed for Christmas felt like “a slap in the face”.

For the Jewish community, numerous religious festivals which are normally huge communal affairs have also been totally different.

In April, there was Pesach (Passover), which recalls the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, then Pentacost (Shavuot) in late April, which commemorates the giving of the Torah – the first five books in the Hebrew Bible.

Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement, followed by the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) and Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, all happened in September.

And Hanukkah, the eight day Jewish festival known as the Festival of Lights is ended on Thursday.

Eli Gaventa
Dr Lindsay Taylor-Guthartz with her husband and one of her daughters who is married with two daughters lighting candles for Hanukkah a few years ago

Dr Lindsay Taylor-Guthartz, who is married with two daughters, told HuffPost UK that Judaism is a very communal religion and for most festivals, people head to the synagogue – but this hasn’t been able to happen for most of this year.

“The one that hit me hardest was Simchat Torah which celebrates the public Torah readings. Usually, there’s dancing in the synagogue with people holding the Torah scrolls and it is noisy and exciting.

“We tried to recreate our own version at home, but it was very difficult.”

Dr Taylor-Guthartz, who has a research fellowship at the University of Manchester and is a lecturer at Kings College in London, says throughout the year, Jews have tried to adapt and capture the essence of their festivals, but it wasn’t the same.

“I feel very sympathetic for anyone facing missing out on their festivals and seeing their families,” she said. “I don’t have this feeling of ‘I couldn’t have my festival so why should they have theirs’ as that would be a very grumpy attitude.

“If it is safe, I’m glad people will be able to see their loved ones at Christmas. I wish everyone could have had their festivals.

“I just hope people are sensible and have a toned down Christmas with their family so we don’t see infections rise in a few weeks time.”

Rabbi Zvi Solomons, 52, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Reading, told HuffPost UK it is very understandable Christmas is going ahead. He says although it is not his festival, he will be taking advantage to spend time with dear friends. 

Rabbi Zvi Solomon
Rabbi Zvi Solomon

“Jewish festivals are very important family and communal occasions and they were a washout this year as they either happened during lockdown or when restrictions were in place,” he said.

“Passover was hard as the whole point is to open up your homes to people so anyone can come and eat, but we couldn’t do that.

“However, there were upsides as we have had Zoom services and more people have been engaging with them.”

Rabbi Zvi Solomon
Rabbi Zvi Solomon's wife and son with Hanukkah candles on a previous year

Rabbi Solomons says although Christmas is not his festival, he recognises its beauty. “I love Christmas lights, the music is beautiful and the sentiment of generosity and peace is wonderful. 

“It is not mine, but I can appreciate it. My heart aches for my Muslim friends who missed out on Eid and Hindus and Sikhs who couldn’t celebrate Diwali properly. 

“Christmas is about family time for most people so I think it’s really important that Christians can celebrate it. 

“But I also think it’s very important that people are sensible and careful and limit what they do until the vaccine is fully rolled out.”