Tandoori turkey? How British Muslims are celebrating Christmas

No Christmas feast is ever complete without a roast turkey and British Muslims are joining in the food fun

Nabila Pathan
Nabila Pathan - Special to Al Arabiya News
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No Christmas feast is ever complete without a roast turkey and the trimmings to go with the feast. A tradition that dates back to the 16th century is becoming increasingly popular amongst some British Muslims. Key ingredients may remain centuries old but flavors are evolving.

“We’ve made the Christmas lunch into an annual family tradition for the past five years,” explains Sarah Aziz from East London.

“Feasting at Christmas has always been a time for family and that spirit of togetherness has not been lost on Muslims.”

“The traditional dinner at Christmas forms a focal point for all of us to get together. We may not mark Christmas as a religious festival but that doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the festive spirit.”

This year, Rashida Khan, who is a second generation British Pakistani, will be hosting her first Christmas lunch with extended family members. “British Pakistanis form [a large] ethnic group amongst British Muslims so it’s only natural that our taste buds will be influenced by the flavors of South Asian cuisine. The traditional Christmas dinner will have an East meets West twist.” She goes on to explain that this year she is attempting “trimmings that will be infused with traditional spices... chilli flakes will be sprinkled on the Brussels sprouts and there will be a garnish of coriander and lime on the curry flavored gravy.”

Such experimentation is not new. Amongst some of the ethnically diverse households that form Britain’s second largest religious community, there will be different versions of Turkey marinade being applied beyond the traditional sage, butter and thyme. “I’m going for a tandoori and yoghurt marinade” explains Sarah. “It’s a flavor which the whole family loves so I’m not expecting any disappointment about moving away from the traditional.”

The British Muslim population in the UK has been estimated at around 2.7 million. The trend of British Muslims adopting traditional Christmas feasting traditions has been increasingly observed over the past five years by media commentators.

Whether it’s Muslims helping in soup kitchens to help the homeless or in 2012, Shamim Chowdhury at the Huffington Post writing that “all across the land, posters for halal turkeys in butchers’ shops in Muslim-populated areas such as Southall, Leicester and Birmingham stand testament to the significance Muslims place on this day. In these parts, greengrocers will be placing extra orders for Brussels sprouts and parsnips, local shops will be stacking boxes of Christmas crackers up high and reams of sparkling tinsel will be on display in abundance.”

However, as many Muslims and non-Muslim take to Twitter to celebrate the diversity of Christmas celebrations marked by the popularity of Halal Turkey sales, there continues to be pushback from some voices in the British Muslim community that even the act of wishing people “Merry Christmas” is un-Islamic.

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying what is a traditional Christmas custom. Every year without fail, there will always be one or two people on my Facebook who will criticize me for wishing my friends Merry Christmas. They clearly won’t be interested in attending my Christmas feast today,” one British Muslim observer told Al Arabiya News.

“Eating Turkey doesn’t make me less Muslim and nor does consuming halal Turkey signify a Shariah take over... for those who spread Islamophobic sentiments” added Aziz. “Food is about celebrating diversity. Christmas dinner is the ultimate symbol of that diversity. We are living in an increasingly multicultural society and most of us have mixed ethnic and religious family members.

As Rashida ponders the dilemma of which Turkey marinade to apply, she remains excited about the prospect of her extended family convening at her household: “Feasting together on an occasion like Christmas is the ultimate symbol that we can be different but have shared connections. I know I’ll be wanting to understand the significance of Prophet Jesus in relation to both Christianity and Islam.

“I’ve got such a mixed array of cultures within my own family, that includes Christians and Muslims, that the actual act of dining together is a great way of showing unity within the family.”

For Sarah, the addition of a Christmas tree marks a turning point in today’s dinner festivities. “It’s not something we were going to do but the kids really wanted it to complete the Christmas ambience whilst the family feasts on the Turkey. Our kids belong to the third generation of British Muslims. Whilst they can distinguish that we celebrate Christmas as a cultural festival, we as parents have also had to accept that our children are taking on a slightly different British identity to us. With that comes changes. The Christmas tree is that change. It’s all part of the evolution that’s not just confined to the Turkey marinade.”

This week, the leading American Muslim comedian Dean Obeidallah wrote in the Daily Beast a comment piece entitled “Jesus: He’s Not Just for Christians!” capturing the cultural snapshot of how Western Muslims are increasingly identifying with Christmas feasting festivities:

“So as Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus this week, many Muslims will be doing the very same thing to varying degrees. And while the eggnog served by the Muslims celebrating Christmas might not be spiked with brandy, the most important spirit will still be there.”

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