As an Asian Muslim who grew up in northern industrial England, I recall Christmas as a time of exciting films on television and nativity plays at school. I fantasised about being one of the three wise men bearing gifts from the east. Instead I went to school bearing a parental note requesting to be excused from participating in these "blasphemous" plays. Islam, like Roman Catholicism, endorses both the virgin birth and the immaculate conception but rejects the idea of God having a son.
In the mosque school I attended every evening - the timing clashed with the screening of The Six Million Dollar Man - we learned to revere Jesus and his mother. Our imam, however, rejected the nativity plays as an inappropriate form of admiration for Jesus, the great Jewish prophet. In retrospect, I find the plays and the message of Christmas morally moving although the value of humility is poorly sustained by British culture for most of the year. In Britain, most of us are culturally Christian. Christmas, as a part of traditional folk religion, is a great cultural success. Classic films shown at Christmas show the family from an era when families still existed. Films based on Victorian novels, so long as these are not ruined by being made into musicals, are morally instructive. Selfish materialism and arrogant self-absorption are superbly ridiculed by Charles Dickens in his portrait of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Dickens, after all, had a lifelong love affair with the new testament.
An admirable feature of the festive season is the increased concern for the poor. Jesus was homeless during his early Galilean ministry. I admire the work of Christian charities whose workers lift the providence of God from the level of dogma to a practical reality for some deprived people for at least a week or so. The message of Christianity cannot be preached by sticking to respectable company only. Putting Christian concern above society's taboo is the natural testimony of a godly life - the best light for the Christmas festival.
The Jesus movement was rooted in a rejection of Mammon, a word from Aramaic, Jesus's mother tongue. Yet Christmas is continually degenerating into a worldwide commercial imperative; it epitomises the human misuse of divine resources. The worst excesses occur in countries that ape the worst of the west, whose citizens see Christmas as a religiously sanctioned western celebration of hedonism.
I have seen Christmas celebrations in Malaysia. Here Christmas has virtually no indigenous relevance; Christians comprise the smallest religious minority. But Christmas as a marketing concept, with all the glamour of the white man's festival, is universal. There is more fuss about Christmas in the Far East than even in relatively religious western countries such as Canada.
In Singapore it is celebrated with obscene ostentation. In Kuala Lumpur every major hotel offers Christmas dinner dances. There are carol services; Christmas bells ring. Chinese Christians sing "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas"; "dreaming" is the right word for that hope in a land of perpetual summer and mosquitoes. In the posh hotels, there are mock open fires; polystyrene and cotton wool replace nature's snowflakes. Coconut trees bathed in a snowy background seem odd but no one is saying so. In Malaysia, as in Hong Kong and Singapore, American tele-evangelists may also grace such occasions with their miracle rallies and instant healing campaigns.
Malaysian Christians celebrate midnight mass and practise the Malay custom of "open house" festivities: non-Christians are invited into the home and entertained. All religious festivals are celebrated as national holidays. The Hindu festival of Deepavali, indigenous to Malaysia, received less national attention than Christmas which has no roots here. Sadly, the spiritual value of Christmas cannot survive the shameless consumerism associated with it - a consumerism that could be redeemed if Mammon were not an only god.
Ironically, some westerners go to Malaysia to escape the festive season! In Europe, Christmas can be a time of depression and loneliness. Many westerners, disillusioned with Semitic religions, seek eastern forms of enlightenment. Most, however, on arrival, seek enlightenment about the location of the nearest bar in a country where alcohol is permitted but not widely consumed. Eastern hospitality, as in Jesus's day, offers only a cup of cool water.
The theology of Christmas, unlike that of Easter, is unclear, aggravated by the fact that Jesus was not born on December 25. Nonetheless, the mission of Christmas is to call Christians to be perfect. The disciples of Jesus, to be worth their salt, must always function in society as an alternative and challenging community - a people of visible virtue whose actions bring glory to their God. Christmas is a season of goodwill to all men and women, not a time to worship wealth and make the gospel of Christ into an easy route to social popularity.
Shabbir Akhtar is a Muslim who teaches comparative religion in Malaysia.