This post was first published on the National Geographic Voices Blog December 30, 2015.
By Gwyneth Talley, Young Explorers Grantee
Last week, for the first time in 457 years, the same day saw both Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25 and Muslims celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad on the 12th day of Rabi’ al-awwal (though there are large populations of both religions that recognize different dates).
Because the Christian calendar is based on an adjusted solar year and the Islamic calendar on the roughly 11-day shorter lunar year, the two holidays, while fixed in their own calendars, move relative to each other each year.
Wishing “peace and goodwill” as well as “happy holidays” are common during northern hemisphere winter every year to encompass the many celebrations in different faiths. This year (and last, and next, as Mawlid falls in January and December) Muslims have a holiday to be included in that number as well.
There are so many traditions associated with Christmas that it can be overwhelming: a massive amount of gifts, food, and candy; a jolly man that comes down the chimney without being suspected of burglary; children trying to appease said jolly man; the Peter, Paul and Mary Christmas Celebration; and songs, sculptures, paintings, and church services honoring theVirgin Mary giving birth to Jesus in a stable and placing him in a manger.
Due to Islamic practices, there are no depictions of Muhammad as a child (or any older) so there are no nativity scenes. Muslims who celebrate Mawlid gather with their families, pass out sweets, and read stories about the Prophet. Food and charity are distributed to the poor and people gather at the mosque to pray and listen to poetry and songs praising Muhammad. Many Muslims might fast throughout the day and then feast on traditional fare in the evening.
As with many Christmas processions in Europe, during Mawlid Muslims will carry banners or enjoy street carnivals. In Rabat-Salé, Morocco, their street procession, known as the Lantern Festival, features geometric wax designs on metal stands carried on the backs of believers. In Qayrawan, Tunisia, believers sing hymns welcoming Muhammad. Pakistanis celebrate Mawlid with a 31-gun salute in Karachi and people gather in Lahore for the International Mawlid Conference. In Indonesia, Muslims celebrate with a festival of bright, colorful masks. Just as Puritans once outlawed Christmas festivities in England, strict Islamic sects disapprove of the celebration of Mawlid.
So whichever religion you follow, whether you have a Charlie Brown Christmas tree or a Festivus pole, a Mawlid procession or just a few quiet or rowdy evenings with your family, be sure to celebrate the universality of celebration itself, and take some time to learn more about some of the many other traditions and cultures around the world.