A Muslim Yule shows New Britain at its best

Christmas was not a day in `Hello!', but it was happy, funny, and unpredictably affirming
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The Independent Culture
THANK YOU for your cards and good wishes and the delicate way some of you asked if people like me celebrated Christmas. The answer is yes, and with genuine pleasure although, inevitably, there are complications mostly inside our hearts and heads about whether this means the end of our civilisations.

As one of my many wise aunties (all older women in the community are aunties with an absolute right to advise, bully and instruct you) puts it: "The question is whether we are afraid of dissolving like sugar in their pot of tea or whether we are proud that we are making their tea all the sweeter."

This year was affected by the situation in Iraq and by Ramadhan but, nevertheless, around the country British Asians were seen to be doing Christmas in some style and in ways that would have been unimaginable even five years ago. They do so because they are much more confident of their presence and identity than they were then.

It is an expression not of assimilation - which we would reject as cultural suicide - but of a new kind of pluralistic society, where it is no longer necessary to buffet yourself against the cross winds of cultural influence. You know who you are and you believe this to be your nation.

As Nehru said: "I am an internationalist because I am so rooted in India." Once, if you participated in Christmas, you felt like you had stolen someone else's clothes. It was embarrassing and alienating. You also felt that you were shedding your authentic self.

Even now there are some aspects of the festival that cause discomfort, but we are able to pick and choose what feels right against our skins. Trees in the home and vastly expensive presents (thank God) are still a rarity, and most of us cannot quite grapple with Father Christmas and his role in the birth of Christ. On the other hand, we love our children in the Nativity plays and long for the day when they will be the angels and not the donkeys and sheep.

But this is not only about us and how we are managing the changes that migration brings. What happens at Christmas is a reflection of a far more fundamental evolution within British society.

Just take our family. We did have a tree with lots of lovely golden cherubs (my husband is an ex-choirboy after all) plus huge butterflies, eagles and doves. This first confused, then amused, Vera, my mother-in-law from Shoreham, who had met one black person in her life before I turned up, a Muslim divorcee with a young son.

I wore a sari, mainly to reassure myself that I was maintaining my eastern credentials. My mother Jena came and conspicuously prayed with her tasbi ( prayer beads) through the day. Her English is somewhat limited by the fact that she taught herself the language by watching soap operas and Crimewatch, and reading Woman's Own.

The two women hugged a lot and spoke viciously about thieves and asylum seekers. Vera is hard of hearing though she denies this, so during our conversations, when I failed to understand her strange replies, she repeated her sentences to me very slowly as if I was a deaf Croat.

Colin, my husband, teased Jena by telling her he had stuffed the turkey with pork. She told him eating "pig meat" would make him heartless. We paid for Vera to come to us by taxi. She was overwhelmed and told us stories about the poverty she had grown up in.

Her gratitude was unexpected and I informed her that as the mother-in- law of an Asian woman she could demand a whole lot more and even slap me around if I irritated her. She seemed very troubled by this. Then there was the Canadian, married to my cousin, who is our daughter's godmother; and my son, now studying in Edinburgh, who is becoming an ardent Scotsman. It was not a day in Hello!, but it was happy, funny, fraught too, and unpredictably affirming.

I wish these changes were better understood by the ignoramus commentators who use this time of the year to decry multiculturalism, because their precious children are heard singing songs from foreign parts or the lights in the streets of Birmingham are too secular (unlike the lights in Regent Street, which feature the new Christian God Tango) or because in their eyes it is our presence that is killing off Christianity. They rail against these things because, unlike us, they are now in a state of panic about who they are and are desperate not to let go of the false images of cultural purity and perfection.

Devolution is likely to heighten this insecurity. But New Britain already exists. It is a country where de facto integration has surpassed our understanding of it. This is what I found when I was researching my forthcoming book on multiculturalism (to be published by the Institute of Public Policy Research). Social and racial fissures do of course still exist and blight lives, but the story is much more positive than either cultural pedants or adamant ant-racists want to believe.

Political leaders must develop a different narrative about pluralism so that people are able to respond with pride rather than prejudice to what has been achieved. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, seems to be leading the way. A month ago, he made a powerful statement: "There are those who would retreat from an expansive idea of Britishness into a constricted shell of right-wing English nationalism. My vision of Britain comes not from uniformity but from celebrating diversity. I understand Britishness as being outward-looking, open, internationalist, with a commitment to democracy."

This understanding is already being lived out in Britain by its newest immigrant communities. Perhaps in time their way of living can serve as a model for others.

Have a Happy Multicultural New Year.

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