Three people who don’t celebrate Christmas on how they spend the holidays

By: Jessica Mach on December 25, 2018

My family didn’t always celebrate Christmas. Until their late 20s, my parents lived in Vietnam, and the holiday was quite literally a foreign concept to them. In Vancouver, where they ended up living after they got married, the holiday meant little beyond stores being more crowded than usual, neighbours stringing up coloured lights on their houses, and sales on the 26th. As the years went by, we eventually bought a plastic tree that we would haul out every December and made a point of having dinner with our extended family, but the tradition was something we adopted as a way to participate in what was going on all around us — at the stores, at work, at school, on TV — rather than something that was rooted in long standing family customs or religious significance.

Given my own relationship with Christmas, which I’d describe as… casual (at best; I’m spending the day at a Las Vegas buffet), I wanted to find out how other people in Canada spent this time of year if they feel similarly about the holiday. If they get time off from work, do they treat it like a regular vacation? Do they celebrate other holidays instead? And do they feel pressure to spend money? We talked to a few people to find out.

Taking advantage of that holiday pay

Nuruddin Qorane, 27, doesn’t abstain from Christmas altogether — his mom’s side of the family celebrates the holiday, and every year they have a dinner on Christmas Eve — but it’s never a huge deal. “There’s a small amount of gift giving… but it’s kind of more muted,” he says.

His dad’s side of the family is another story. As Muslims, they don’t celebrate Christmas at all, but there are perks that fall around that time of year thanks to holiday celebrations — namely, people taking time off from work. “The other half of my family — they treat it as a time off of work,” Qorane explains. “Or, a lot of the times, we end up working the holidays because a lot of the Christians aren’t working it.”

This can often mean holiday or even overtime pay. “You kind of make a little extra money.”

Treating it like a regular vacation… with trips to the Christmas market

Umair Azmi, 27, joined back in September by way of Dubai (where he worked for three years), Atlanta, Georgia, (where he studied for a semester), and Pakistan (where he grew up). While Azmi never celebrated Christmas with his family back home, his travels familiarized him with the holiday. In Dubai, for example, “I used to work for a British company... the majority of the people there celebrated Christmas, and during December holidays, they would go back to ... the UK, and celebrate it with their families.”

What’s different between Christmas in Dubai — which is largely a Muslim country — and Christmas in Toronto, he observes, is the intensity of the celebrations: “It’s really out in the open.” The city’s current atmosphere reminds him of Eid, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan in the summer. “Everyone is in a festive move,” he says. “That’s good to see.”

Azmi plans to spend Christmas with friends in Atlanta. They won’t be celebrating the holiday, per se (“I don’t know how people celebrate Christmas because I’m not sure what you do, but I just treat it like a vacation”) but he does plan on exploring Christmas events around the city. In Toronto, he’s already visited a winter lights festival and a Christmas market.

This keenness to explore has made December a relatively more expensive month for Azmi — even if he’s not buying anything to prepare for the holidays. “I am practically going out every weekend and every day of the week.”

Christmas is not the only excuse to get together in December

Vibhu Gairola, 28, grew up in a Hindu family, so he doesn’t celebrate Christmas per se. But, he’ll enthusiastically join any Christmas party he’s invited to — his family is “happy to celebrate anything that gives our friends joy and us a reason to get together,” he says.

There are a handful of Hindu holy days in December, but Gairola’s family doesn’t explicitly celebrate those either. Instead, they treat seasonal days off to spend time with each other, and their friends, on a secular basis. One of their favourite things to do around the end of the month is to throw a potluck or house party. “As the year closes, it's always a good time to take stock of what has happened over piles and piles of good food.”

Gairola says he does tend to spend more money in December even without the pressure of Christmas, mostly because he’s trying to take advantage of seasonal sales. If his family travels or throws a party with “lavish food,” that also adds to costs — but that’s always in the name of fun. “We just like to enjoy the downtime and the release in tension that the season brings,” he says.