WHEN I was a little girl growing up in a small town in Kedah, Christmas was just something that I saw in black and white on television; of the rotund and merry Father Christmas carrying a sack full of presents.
During a school holiday trip to the more modern Kuala Lumpur, and a subsequent visit to Port Dickson, I met my first Santa. He was not rotund or European or had a sack full of presents, but we children had lots of fun. He was our Uncle Dorai. There was no turkey, but lots of chicken curry and capati made by Aunty Tata.
Having been schooled in a convent, I was aware of the religious side of Christmas, and the Christmas experience I had then had no religious significance whatsoever. There were no constant reminders of what not to do, but, somehow, we knew the boundaries. It was all about sharing the fun.
Fast forward 10 years or more, I landed in London in December 1979, where the Christmas atmosphere was fast building up. We joined throngs of last-minute shoppers hunting for presents in Oxford Street.
What could be more Christmas-sy than hearing Christmas songs and carols from every corner of the street, meeting revellers in their party hats all tipsy from their Christmas office parties and seeing people lugging home small Christmas trees to be decorated. Strangers hugged and shouted out “Merry Christmas” to each other.
On Christmas, we sat around the table with old friends of my husband’s, wore those silly paper hats, pulled Christmas crackers and opened presents. This celebration with these friends became an annual affair for a few years.
When it was Eid, they, too, shared our celebration. Perhaps our friends were not overly religious, thus our Christmas days were more about spending free time together because there was nothing better to do.
Everything was shut for Christmas, and watching Fawlty Towers and repeats of The Sound of Music was more bearable when watched together. Doing bumper crossword puzzles in the newspaper was another popular activity.
However, it was with the arrival of the children that things began to change, somewhat.
Of course they were excited when Christmas came; they gave presents and received presents, they got to play small parts in the school’s nativity play, queued outside Santa’s grotto and sat on his lap for pictures, and even joined in charity work visiting lonely, elderly people and cooked for the homeless.
As they grew older, fortunately, they got tired of being the hind legs of the donkey and trying to pull Santa’s white beard was no longer fun; which was just as well, as the whole political correctness and sensitivities surrounding nativity plays at school and the issue of Christmas trees and decorations suddenly became problematic.
Some Muslim parents refused to let their children take part in nativity plays and one year, a school went a bit too far in trying to be politically correct to accommodate the Muslim community, so no Christmas trees or decorations were allowed.
There was even one ridiculous suggestion to refer to Christmas as just “a holiday”. This riled up more counter accusations about Muslims not wanting to integrate.
Whether it is in Malaysia or on British soil, debates and discussions on what is and not allowed usually gain momentum long before the first sounds of the jingles are heard.
This year, Tesco’s Christmas advertisement backfired as it depicted a Muslim family celebrating together.
In its one minute-long advert, families are seen preparing a Christmas dinner and cooking a turkey in their own way. They greet each other, and, in one scene, a Muslim family is seen holding Christmas gifts.
Oh, what a day for Twitter and Facebook ranters! The Muslim Council of Britain was moved to issue two simple Christmas greetings, “Keep Calm, It’s Christmas’ and “Don’t Panic, Christmas is not Banned”.
For a few years now, Dec 25 has come to have its own special significance for us and some close friends. Come Christmas, Chef Syed Fauzi of Tuk Din Restaurant in London would order halal turkey. Trained to cook western food at the same school that Naked Chef Jamie Oliver was trained, Syed Fauzi would whip up a meal complete with Yorkshire puddings, stuffing, gravy, potato salad and Brussel sprouts. On my part, without fail, it will be air asam and nasi tomato for this “East meets West” annual affair.
It was on Christmas that Tuk Din, or Zainuddin Yahya, got married to his wife, Hamidah, and since then, there has been no better way to spend the day.
Roasted turkey and air asam have come to symbolise our existence here; taking the best of the two cultures and celebrations without offending anyone.