I’m dreaming of a (non)white Christmas — two of them, actually.
Being Coptic Christian means that my official Christmas falls on Jan. 7. But my family has adopted a tradition of having a small Dec. 25 Christmas, too, a way of making a Western holiday our own.
Our wooden dining table bursts at the seams with family and food — fish, rice, fattoush salad, ful (fava beans) and pita bread. Everyone shouts over each other in Arabic and English, catching up on the past few months. Of course, one of my aunts has to tease me for my English-tainted Arabic accent. Amid the chaos, I’m home. I feel grounded in the laughter and commands to “eat, eat, eat!” From the Christmas tree to the Egyptian food, our blended Christmas makes me feel complete.
My makeshift white Christmas reminds me that my Egyptian and American identities can coexist and flourish together. I am proud to have so many different cultural ties and to celebrate that multiplicity on the 25th.
But Coptic Christmas, the extravagant, drawn-out version of American Christmas, holds a special place in my heart. Coptic Christmas is the day of the year when I feel most connected to my Egyptian heritage. As the rest of America takes down its Christmas lights and decorations, I get to celebrate with my Coptic community. I feel my culture radiating all around me in the music, food and traditions. I feel proud and fortunate to be Egyptian.
My favorite part of the holiday is cooking with my family. With each dish, I feel closer to them and to my culture. As I take in the smell of mahshi (stuffed grape leaves), I am transported to the time I was 12, when my mom assigned me the difficult task of rolling the grape leaves. I felt honored that my mom trusted me with one of the most important dishes. Preparing the grape leaves is still special to me.
After making the food, putting together my Christmas outfit has always been exciting. As a child, I spent lots of time perfecting my outfit so I could model for the other kids at church. I always looked forward to our mini fashion show, a time when I could hang out with other Coptic kids who understood my background and culture. As we congregated together in the Sunday school room, I felt safe and much less alone with Copts surrounding me.
While I’ve outgrown the fashion show, I now find community in singing Coptic hymns with my church. When we sing in unison on Christmas Eve, I feel connected not only to my church community but to Copts around the globe. Every note, musical embellishment and word makes me feel like I am adding to and sharing in this community and family.
As much as I enjoy my Coptic Christmas now, I hated it as an elementary school kid. Coptic Christmas was a reminder that I was different from the rest of the children. I dreaded my classmates’ questions and the confused stares I got when I responded. As the only Middle Eastern/North African person in my class throughout elementary and middle school, I was burdened with representing my culture to my peers.
Eventually, I learned to embrace the questions about my culture and religion. I realized that I would have to answer their questions either way and decided to use the opportunity to my advantage. Year after year, Jan. 7 became a chance to share my heritage and beliefs with my friends. I capitalized on their curiosity as an opportunity to explain the significance of the holiday, offering my classmates food and small gifts to bridge the gap between our cultures. When my classmates responded positively, I realized that even a small gesture could make them learn to accept and find beauty in our differences.
Christmas has always made my Egyptian heritage more visible, ostracizing me from my white peers. But in my time at UC Berkeley, I’ve realized that I don’t have to feel that sense of otherness alone. I now have a whole community of fellow Coptic students at UC Berkeley who are all united through this heritage. Our shared culture is something we joke about, bond over and love. We see each other as a family that only expands with each new Egyptian person we meet.
Having all of these different families has made Jan. 7 Christmas even more special to me. I realize during this holiday that my family extends to every Copt on the globe as we all celebrate together. All over the world, we are cooking and singing and preparing for this moment. And we are adding color and newness to other traditions, too.
I used to be ashamed of celebrating Christmas differently from the way everyone else did. I wanted to condense everything into a single, white Christmas. But what once made me feel alienated is now my source of strength. Being with my Coptic community — my family — reminds me that my culture is too complex and beautiful to be constrained by a Western definition of Christmas.