When Christmas is a foreign country: All the icons are white, and for some children this brings confusions, writes Yasmin

Zain Sardar, a five-year-old Muslim boy, is convinced that Santa would bring him presents if only there was a chimney in his house. Last year he cried because his family did not have a Christmas tree.

His 14-year-old sister, Maha, had similar longings. She had felt unhappy about being a Muslim because the celebrations of Eid, falling twice a year, did not constitute a holiday. The festivals are family occasions for dressing up and feasting, but presents are not a major factor. 'I used to hang out with this girl Kate,' Maha explains. 'In her house there was all this atmosphere of Christmas and I would come home and there was nothing. So I used to cry because I wanted to be like Kate.'

Six-year-old Bina Patel proclaimed recently in the school playground that she was going to get 'very big things' for Christmas. Her cousin, Amar, said she was lying because they were Hindus and celebrated Diwali. She scratched and kicked him.

Christmas can be a very difficult time for the many Asian children who do not celebrate the occasion. They suffer the misery of exclusion as they are bombarded with festive images and messages on television, in schools and from peer groups. These feelings are intensified by the uncompromisingly white icons of Christmas.

Zia, Zain's father, an academic and television producer, once saw a mother in Malaysia dragging a child towards a dark-skinned Santa: 'The child was screaming, 'But Father Christmas is white, I don't want this black one'. It feels like a very white celebration because all the representations are white.'

Ironically, inclusion can also be a problem. Maha was disappointed that she was chosen to play the Star in the East in the nativity play but her father was enormously relieved. 'We couldn't have handled her being Joseph or Mary because, to us, prophets are special people and you don't turn them into statues or actors,' he said.

As they grow up, many Asian children interpret such aching moments as further evidence of rejection of them in this society and a confirmation of their separate identities.

Zaid, the Sardars' middle son, says: 'Before, I was ashamed of being Muslim, now I am really proud. I don't want this celebration anyway.'

Maha adds: 'So many children in our school don't respect other people's religion - they don't like us, so why should we like their festivals? During assembly I stand with other Asians and refuse to sing carols. I don't see why we should.'

Many Asian parents, concerned about the effect on their children, are having to consider the adjustments they need to make to cope. Their response to Christmas is symbolic of strategies they have adopted to survive as distinct communities while accepting change in order to adapt to their new environs.

Leela Patel, Bina's mother, believes that the only way forward is to conform unreservedly. Grappling at present with imponderables such as the virgin birth and why something without meat should be called mincemeat, she is sure that, by next year, she will be able to do Christmas 'properly'.

'I really think this is important,' she said. 'Our children are growing up here. I don't want Bina to feel always an outsider. We are not in India any more, we must learn about this country's customs.'

Rattan, her husband, agrees. Like many others, they feel vulnerable as outsiders and see assimilation as the only way of gaining acceptance. However, Rattan's brother, Ram, dismisses adaptation as being affectation - 'imitation English by wearing silly paper hats'. He feels there is something abject about wanting to be so much a part of the white world, instead of having the confidence to stay different. He quotes Samuel Johnson: 'Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.'

But isn't reading Dr Johnson just as imitative of Western ways as silly hats at Christmas? 'No. The great things of human civilisation belong to everyone. But the religious symbols that identify different groups should remain discrete.'

Sunil (not his real name), an accountant-cum-amateur-poet, agrees: 'Performing cultural plastic surgery on ourselves will never make us one of them. We look and feel different. Many white people get so upset if their children sing a Punjabi song at school, so what about our feelings when Christmas comes like a huge wave and we are expected to just lie down and drown in it? We must give our children at least a small sense that they have different historical and religious antecedents. However hybrid they will eventually become, that connection is an important one.'

Despite this resistance, many Asians do participate in Christmas activities. Sunrise, the Middlesex-based Asian radio station, is inundated with goodwill messages at this time and many families travel to see the Christmas lights decorating London's West End.

Shakuntala Gupta (not her real name), an infant school teacher who was born in India, said: 'I feel it gives the children fantasy and magic and joy - a real sense of a society putting its tools down and looking at the bright side of things. I remember the first time I saw the colours, the atmosphere - it was wonderful. I still feel that wonder; in fact my children are more blase about it. Why reject it, why not include it in your life?'

Mr Sardar thinks that families need to be flexible in a multiracial community: 'If we can identify with certain aspects of this society, we should - within limits.'

His family has 'Christmasised' Eid, to make it more exciting. They now have wrapped presents and even a tableau representing Mecca. Next year, suggests Zaid, 'We should hang dates on a small tree.'

However, he still urges discretion: 'If this is the time to show important values like love and charity, I would have no problem. But if it is a purely commercial event about transactions of money, it should be denied to our children. White children are having their childhood taken away by being targeted as customers. We at least can opt out of that - and the excessive drinking and all that too.'

Christmas is undeniably a major event. It does, however, need to be pulled back from the excess it has come to represent. The way to do this is to ensure that children at least see it as one of many world festivals.

The Anson primary school in Cricklewood, north London, a school with children from very different backgrounds, seems to be succeeding in putting these messages across.

Betty Davies, the headteacher, said: 'We encourage them to broaden the way they think about these things. We use this time to get children to think about, and respect, each other's cultures and to make connections between the different ways people celebrate. Christmas is everywhere after all, and we feel it is important to give other festivals space as well.'

This year the common theme is light. Diwali, the Hindu festival that celebrates victory of good over evil; Christmas, Hanukkah, the Jewish winter celebration, and Eid all use light as a symbol.

During the rehearsal for the end-of- year performance the children move effortlessly from the Hindu story of Ram and Sita to the birth of Christ and the significance of Eid. The hall, decorated with various festive images, resonates with assorted celebratory songs, although the ones sung with the most gusto are the Christmas songs.

This approach seems to encourage the children to be more analytical, too. During a discussion, Muslim and Hindu children say that they like Christmas but do not mind that they do not celebrate it at home. It annoys them, however, to see so much of it on television.

Reem Mudawi, a refugee from Sudan, adds: 'They can celebrate how they want and I wish we had decorations and that, but they must think when these commercials tell them 'get your presents blah blah' that the shopkeepers will sell things very expensive now and that's wrong.' All the children, including the Christians, nod in agreement. Mugdad, a Muslim boy, initiates a lively conversation about the wickedness of profligacy and profiteering at Christmas, then they leave to dress for the rehearsal: Reem as a Jewish messenger, and Mugdad as Joseph.

(Photograph omitted)

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