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Valentine: Raising Kids in a Holiday

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Blogging Religions
By Dilshad D. Ali
Freelance Writer, USA
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I make it a point to call my kids’ teachers when the `Eid holidays are upon us and ask if I can make a presentation on these holidays in their classrooms.
Valentine's Day
The remnants of Valentine’s Day are still littered around our house. The picture of hearts hand-drawn by my son is still up on my refrigerator. The bag full of valentines brought home by my six-year-old daughter, who attends a private, secular school, is sitting on our kitchen counter as she sneaks chocolates out of it every day. She still has leftover animal-decorated valentines that she handed out to her classmates sprawled around her bedroom.

In short, even though my husband and I did not celebrate the ”holiday“ (If you want to call it that), the holiday still invaded our house.

Problem is, I have kids. And they attend public and private American schools where exchanging Valentine’s cards and making gifts for friends and parents are an innocent part of the fun. And it is not just on Valentine’s Day.

I have  never deeply researched this particular holiday, but apparently it links back to a Catholic saint named St. Valentine; and the holiday either stems from one legend were St. Valentine advocated marriage among soldiers when their Roman emperor banned it, or another legend where St. Valentine was executed for his Christian beliefs and left a note for a loved one signed, ”Your Valentine.”

So either way, the holiday, which is just a commercial mess these days, has its origins from a Catholic saint. So it makes sense to me as a Muslim, who tries to stick to the `Eid holidays, to just let Valentine’s Day pass on by with no fanfare.

Problem is, I have kids. And they attend public and private American schools where exchanging Valentine’s cards and making gifts for friends and parents are an innocent part of the fun. And it is not just on Valentine’s Day. As parents, my husband and I face this problem on Halloween, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, and Mother’s Day.

So what to do? When it comes to major non-Islamic religious holidays in the U.S., like Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, Passover, Diwali, and so on, you can be sure that the kids in public schools, where the U.S. Constitution’s mandate of the separation of Church and State is sacred, these holidays are not “celebrated.” What does often happen is that the children may read books about other holidays or have a lesson on it.

(Although at my daughter’s private school, it is another story. It is a secular school with a major Christian population. And since it is not public, meaning no government money going to it, the administration at this school feels much freer to put a “Christmas”, albeit non-religious, theme in its annual winter school play. And discussions of Santa and “Merry Christmas” greetings are heard at her school, prompting my fed-up husband to declare this year after our daughter went on winter holiday break, “Next year during Christmas time we are vacationing in a Muslim country!”)

And this is ok by me. I mean, we do live in a non-Muslim, mixing-bowl of a country, and I want my kids to know there are different faiths out there that we should respect. I make it a point to call my kids’ teachers when the `Eid holidays are upon us and ask if I can make a presentation on these holidays in their classrooms. It is a great learning opportunity, and for now, while my kids are still young enough (and excited, rather than embarrassed, when their mom comes to speak in their class), it helps make them feel secure and proud of who they are.

But these minor holidays, now they are a problem. Some of these holidays have obscure religions history, like Halloween (paganism), St. Patrick’s Day (an Irish holiday commemorating Ireland’s patron saint) and Valentine’s Day. Other holidays are non-religious, like Thanksgiving (which dates back to a feast of thanks that the Pilgrims shared with the Native Americans who helped them survive their first harsh winter when they came to the New World), and Mother’s Day (which was a pacifist reaction to carnage of the American civil war).

So it is rather hard to cherry-pick with my children: Sorry kids. We may not go trick-or-treating on Halloween, but you can make me a Mother’s Day card! But this is what I face. And I guess if we were going to be truly Islamic about this, we would not do anything on any of these holidays because they have nothing to do with Islam; they are bidah, or an innovation of modern times.

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Our goal is to bring our kids back to their religion always, to make our faith our way of life.

Between Extremes…

But the fact of the matter is that when you choose to raise Muslim children in the United States, you are  going to have to adapt, deal, make alternatives, and handle these situations. I feel strongly that by raising our children to be good Muslims in a non-Muslim country, we are giving them a solid foundation to not take their religion for granted. We are making a real effort to bring them back to religion, to ground them in their faith, and to show them that we can be Muslim and adapt to our surroundings without losing who we are.

My friends with children and I discuss this issue often, and we have varying opinions on how to handle these holidays. Some friends don’t sweat these holidays at all. They’ll do special Valentine’s activities; let their kids go trick-or-treating on Halloween, and so on. They say that the history of these holidays is so minor and that these holidays are basically commercial, benign ways of having fun. What’s the harm?

 Two friends of mine, one whose children attends a local Islamic school (where these minor holidays are not acknowledged at all), and the other whose child is homeschooled, take a no compromise approach: These minor holidays are ignored and their children, if they ask, are promptly told that Muslims do not  celebrate these holidays.

I admire them for their simple, direct method. We do not  celebrate Halloween. We do not  celebrate Valentine’s Day. That is  it. And what they do (what many Muslim American parents, including myself, do is to really whoop up our `Eid holidays so that our children get super excited about them. So if the kids feel left out of trick-or-treating, they get candy bags on `Eid.).

I am hopeful that this approach, this mix of tolerating the benign celebrations of some of these minor holidays in school coupled with a downplaying attitude at home will help my kids get the jollies out of their system.

Then there is me. Stuck in the middle as usual. My children, who attended Islamic school in the past, are in public and secular private schools now. For my eldest, who is in public school, this whole issue is moot because he is autistic and basically nonverbal. Holidays make no impression on him. My daughter is a different story.

She is  smart, loving, impressionable, and a thousand other adjectives I could bore you with. She attends our Islamic Sunday School, does salat with me, has numerous surahs memorized, and is on the 17th Juz of the Qur’an (as we make our way through her first reading of it).  Her grandparents spend large chunks of time with us and teach her the finer points of religion. She is well aware that she is a Muslim, of the basic things we believe in, of who our beloved Prophet was, and Allah’s presence over everything.

She is  also a six-year-old and one of only three Muslims in her school (and though I do not want to judge, but I think it is  safe to say that we are  the most “Muslim” of the three). She is bombarded with ghosts and witches on Halloween, turkeys on Thanksgiving, and a Valentine’s Day card-exchange on that holiday. So we could talk to her teachers and ban her from participating in all of those activities, thereby isolating her at times from her classmates.

But what we have  decided to do is what was done with me growing up. We let some of it slide, on other parts we stand firm. We do not isolate her in school from those activities (unless they are way over the top, which they have not been—with the exception being that winter play they do at her school; I may need to pull her out of that in the next two years), but we totally downplay these holidays at home when they occur. At home, we have control. We occupy her with other activities, and then we rest assure in the fact that as she matures, she will inshallah lose interest in these things and they will fade away.

So there is no trick-or-treating on Halloween for her, and we do not hand out candy either. No special Valentine’s Day exchanges between us at home. No overt displays of “wearing green” on St. Patrick’s Day. I do not  negate or berate these holidays in front of her because she is too young for that. We just tacitly turn her attention away from them. On Thanksgiving, yes, I will make a special dinner. I like the idea of commemorating that original intention of the Pilgrims to give thanks. On Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, if the kids want to make cards, I think that’s fine.

Our goal is to bring our kids back to their religion always, to make our faith our way of life. But we also live between deen and dunia, and we want to make sure they know who they are as Muslims, but that they also can live comfortably here in the U.S. without feeling like everything that seems exciting and fun as children elicits a big fat “No!” from us.

I am hopeful that this approach, this mix of tolerating the benign celebrations of some of these minor holidays in school coupled with a downplaying attitude at home will help my kids get the jollies out of their system. And by providing enough alternative methods of fun, by making sure they have good activities, good friends, and a rip-roaring fun time on our `Eid holidays, I believe the appeal of these holidays will fade soon enough.

Related Links:
Valentine Day’s Evolution of a Muslim Woman
Valentine's Day: Roots & Islamic View
Dilshad D. Ali’s writing reaches across the United States to address lifestyle topics pertinent to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ali has covered movie premieres, film festivals, art exhibitions, concerts, and numerous other cultural stories, including the effect of September 11 on New York’s cultural landscape for IslamOnline. Ali is a 1997 University of Maryland journalism graduate.

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