Celebrating When No One Around You Is: Christmas in a Muslim Culture

Children decorate a Christmas tree.

I stood on a crowded bus in a crowded city. It was just another Thursday and everybody seemed to have some place to be.

But for my wife and me, this was no normal Thursday. It was Christmas Eve and we were on our way to a friend’s house for Christmas dinner. We would feast and laugh, exchange gifts, sing carols, and celebrate the birth of the Christ child—good news of great joy for all people.

But what about the people on the bus? No good news, no lasting joy, and no singing. It was just another Thursday. Time to run errands.

Living in a Muslim culture transformed our family’s celebration of Christmas. There is no widespread anticipation of December 25, inherent in the culture. No seasonal music, no office parties, no Christmas sales, and no festival of lights. Among a people that do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, there is no reason for holiday cheer in the dead of winter.

The dearth of festivities did not weaken our celebration, but had the odd effect of distilling it down to its most potent elements. We had to ask ourselves: what do we really need to celebrate Christmas well?

Joy in Christ

First, we need Jesus. He alone is reason enough to celebrate. Take away every song, pie, gift, and tree, and we still have a surplus of joy in Christ. He came into the world to save sinners, give life, and restore the earth and unite it to heaven. This is why he was born, and this is why we celebrate.

“Many people around the world live in perpetual advent. They are awaiting hope, righteousness, justice, peace, and redemption, totally unaware that those gifts arrived in a Savior.”

Living in a Muslim culture—where, as in Narnia under the rule of the white witch, it is never Christmas—taught me that all the trappings of an American Christmas are not required to celebrate the holiday. As Jesus said to Martha, only one thing is necessary: the Lord himself (Luke 10:41–42).

In the bright light of Christ’s work and glory, it’s no wonder to me that we have added all the extra festivities to our celebration of the incarnation. In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son to save sinners. It makes perfect sense, then, that we would turn pumpkins into pie, stockings into gift bags, and snow into angels. For the Messiah has come and turned sinners into saints and dead men into those who will outlive the sun. This is good news of great joy indeed!

The Community of Faith

Second, to celebrate Christmas well we need God’s people, our brothers and sisters in Christ who make celebrating Christmas overseas special. They are teammates who miss the same things we miss. Together we attempt to re-create our holiday favorites, share our peculiar traditions, and fill in the gap for families who are an ocean away.

They are local believers who have no Christmas traditions but are thrilled to join ours and discover ways to celebrate our common Lord. Last year, we hosted believers from four continents for Christmas dinner. We sang carols in the local language, gave one another gifts, and read the Christmas story from Luke. I wouldn’t trade that fellowship for a thousand of my favorite peanut butter balls. Sharing our celebration with other believers brought Christmas joy to its fullest.

A Story to Share

Third, for the most meaningful Christmas, we need to share the story with those who do not yet believe. The lack of widespread Christmas celebration in the Muslim country where we live highlighted one of the most powerful aspects of the Christmas story to us: the hope-filled anticipation of the coming Savior found in the Prophets.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. . . . For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. . . . Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isa. 9:2; 6a; 7a).

In a sense, many people around the world live in perpetual advent. They are awaiting hope, righteousness, justice, peace, and redemption, totally unaware that those gifts arrived in a Savior. For them, Christmas morning is still just another Thursday.

We’ve found that Christmas is an optimal time for reaching out to those who are not yet believers. They have many questions that easily lead into gospel conversations: What is the meaning of Christmas? Who are those little figurines in front of the stable? Why do you give gifts?

God is constantly calling people to himself. Take my friend Yakup* as an example. Though he lives in a small town where there is no church and no public witness, he met believers online and came to faith earlier this year. Or take our sister Yasmin,* who recently began sharing the gospel beyond her social circle, going out to meet new people to tell them about salvation in Christ. She even went on a short-term mission trip to nearby Muslim country. Across the world, the future is festive, for our Father is calling people who will have reason to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Christmas for the First Time

One of my favorite memories is the year we invited our friends Ali* and Zaide* over on Christmas Eve. Ali brought his mother, who was visiting from out of town. They drank grape juice and ate peanut M&Ms with us, a Christmas Eve tradition from my childhood. We told them the Christmas story when they inquired about the nativity scene, and we exchanged gifts. They were honored we would include them in one of our biggest holidays, and we were honored they would come. Through the shared experience, our friendship deepened.

Although the glitz of Christmas in America is fun, it’s the Savior who makes the holiday. We often celebrate far from home, but God has provided everything we need for Christmas cheer when we share with people who hear the Christmas story for the first time, when we worship with the people of God who celebrate the incarnation with us, and when we have Jesus himself, the light of the world.

*Name changed

David Austin is a church planter with the IMB. He and his family have served in Central Asia for seven years.

Feature photo by Kiara Marino. Kiara and her family have served with IMB for the past four years in Europe and now in Central Asia.