I grew up in a home where Christmas was celebrated and like most American homes our celebrations included many of the Pre-Christian elements that characterize holiday decorating. My family was not religious at that time and we all found it amusing that the part of Christmas we celebrated had more to do with life surviving the winter than the birth of Jesus, Prophet Isa (peace be upon him). The elements of Christmas we enjoyed the most were the Christmas Tree and other evergreen decorations and of course our visit from Father Christmas bearing piles of wrapped gifts.
As a folklore and mythology student at UC Berkeley I learned that Father Christmas was possibly a Turkish saint called Nicholas (recall that Turkey was Roman/ Christian before it became Muslim). I also learned about the iconography of the Green Man and later, when I became Muslim, I learned about Sayyidina Khidr (peace be upon him) or the Muslim manifestation of the Green Man who is mentioned in the 18th chapter of the Quran. “Khidr” is an Arabic word literally meaning “the green one” and he is associated with growing plants and life transcending death just like the Green Man.
The Green Man is a figure who appears in several world religions from ancient times to modern day, including most prominently in America, in Modern Paganism. For example in ancient Egypt, Osiris is reborn and then depicted as green, representing vegetation and life rising from death. The oldest record of the Green Man that we have is written in the oldest book, the Epic of Gilgamesh. In that story there is a king named Gilgamesh who searches for an herb of immortality just as Dhul-Qarnain, known as Alexander the Great in English (though some recent Muslim scholars suggest Dhul-Qarnain was Cyrus the Great) searches for the spring of immortality (Fountain of Life) with Khidr (peace be upon him).
To me it makes some sense that Father Christmas may not only be Saint Nicholas, or Santa or the Green Man but a mixture of folklore and iconography that has conflated to form the current understanding of who Father Christmas is. Father Christmas is ever living in current folklore even though he is possibly buried in Turkey. Khidr (peace be upon him) is ever living because he drank from the fountain of everlasting life mentioned in the story of Alexander the Great (though there is some debate amongst scholars about what this actually means because as the Quran states “every soul shall taste death” 3:185). Khidr (peace be upon him) travels the world doing the work of God. Father Christmas travels the world delivering gifts to good little boys and girls. Khidr (peace be upon) is depicted in green robes with a walking stick just like some early images of Father Christmas. (It is unclear when Santa first began to be depicted in red but American illustrator Thomas Nast depicted Santa in red in the late 1800s and in 1920s-30s Coca Cola further reinterpreted the image of Santa in red and white clothing to the Santa we now know today to match their brand colours.)
It is now my opinion that some of the elements in the mythology of Father Christmas have been mixed with the mythology of the Green Man and Khidr (peace be upon him). The Green Man is at the very least a Pre-Christian symbol and may have originated in Asia Minor and adapted by Europeans. If this opinion is wrong it still strikes me that the bearded old wise man is a theme among the saints of many traditions and that this similarity might bring all spiritual traditions closer together in a time full of so much discord. For my family at least this holiday is now about what unites us rather than what differs among us in belief and celebration.
Part of my family has converted to Islam and part of our family is not Muslim, yet kind and tolerant of our new path. But this difference in practices does leave our family in a dilemma when it comes to Christmas.
My non-Muslim siblings still want to see family and celebrate with gifts at Christmas and Eid celebrations do not fulfill this need because they are not Muslim and we were not raised with the Eid holiday. So this Christmas we are compromising. We will celebrate Christmas as a family with all the elements of the the more ancient Father Christmas and evergreen decorating. We are going to tell the stories of The Night Before Christmas and the traditional stories of Khidr (peace by upon him) in My Little Lore of Light by Hajjah Amina Adil.
My mother has sewn a costume for my father who will reprise his role as Father Christmas in green robes and bearing gifts and stories. I have commissioned Waldorf Dolls based on the wise man or dervish doll model to give as gifts to all the children in our family to further emphasize the similarities in all our traditions.
Elizabeth is a mother of two children and writes the blog “sirajunmunira” sharing inspiration and lesson plans for how she’s teaching her children about Muslim holidays.