I immigrated to this country in January of 1984 as a freshman at the University of Tennessee, (I know, here you have to pledge allegiance to Alabama or Auburn, still trying to decide). I was chomping at the bits to live the American dream. After all, I had made it to the country where dreams come true, including the one with the babes from Bay Watch. (I watched that show in Syria thinking: I bet they all look like that in America).
The world was at my fingers, frozen until May arrived. Then I spent a glorious summer meandering the beautiful Smokey Mountains and partaking in Southern hospitality. I was being a typical 18-year-old with all that comes with it. I chased girls, I stayed up late, and I drank way too much on one occasion. We hiked the Smokey’s one weekend, then slept at a shelter that was empty when we dozed off. When I woke up, I was surrounded by strange sleeping bags full of people I did not know snoring and drooling. I decided that was enough backpacking for a while.
School commenced in September. Being an engineering major, I took the myriad of brain-expanding classes like calculus, physics, chemistry, and racket ball. By December, I was ready for some time off.
Growing up in Syria where Christians are about 15 percent of the population, I wasn’t familiar with Christmas. One year when I was about ten, I remember complaining to my father that for some odd reason, my friend Moneer got presents in the middle of the school year. It wasn’t even his Birthday, but he sported new clothes and rode a new bike. That is right, a new bike. He was the envy of the neighborhood. All of us trotted on our old bikes missing gears and clanking and creaking, and here was Moneer flashing the light and ringing the bell like a prophet.
Moneer explained that the bike was a Christmas present. We had our own version of Christmas in Islam, the three-day feast at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. The difference is you don’t get gifts; you get cash. And while cash is all good, that new bike drove tread marks in all of our psyches.
Fast forward to December of 1984. As Christmas approached in Knoxville, I noticed people were a bit nicer. They made cookies for each other. They smiled more. Movies were all about sharing and helping. And there were gifts involved, in wrapped boxes, and sitting under a tree with lights for days and days. All you could do was look at and imagine tearing into the paper saying, ‘Oh you shouldn’t have”.
One night you went to sleep. The next day you woke up and life had changed. You were much richer with nice clothes and new toys and fancy gadgets and soft music with words like “glee” and “star” and “drizzle” and “love” and “joy” and “grandma got run over by a reindeer”. You were also richer realizing that you had friends and family who loved you despite wanting to send grandma out for a night walk in a reindeer farm.
I didn’t understand the faith message of the special day back then, but now that I am a Christian, I certainly do. But the presents are still a solid part of the holiday, (I am size 42). Not only Christians, but people of all faiths should celebrate Christmas, for the reason that for one month out of the year – you will see more smiles.
That Christmas in 1984 will live in memory, including opening the door to our 90-year-old neighbor smiling and handing me a small wrapped box.
“Welcome to America,” Mr. Mac said in a voice you could barely hear. I opened the box and found a tiny cross.
“You know I am a Muslim,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “God loves you the same”.