Christmas is unquestionably a religious holiday. However, it is also a secular statutory holiday, granted to all regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.
In 2011, the last census for which religious data is available, one-third of Canadian residents identified as non-Christian, up from 25 per cent a decade earlier. The numbers for Newfoundland and Labrador remained much lower with just seven per cent reporting non-Christian affiliations, however, that was more than twice what it was in 2001.
How do all these non-Christians spend the holidays?
The fastest growing religion in Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador between 2001 and 2011 was Islam. The number of Muslims in the province doubled in the 10 years between censuses.
The Central Voice spoke with Sadiq Boodhun, a doctor with Central Health.
Sadiq hails from Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean with a large Muslim population (approximately 20 per cent). His wife, Yasmin, is from Pakistan, the second largest majority-Muslim country by population in the world. They have been in Newfoundland and Labrador for 20 years.
Sadiq said his family does not technically celebrate Christmas, but they do participate.
“If I tell you I celebrate Christmas, you will not believe me, and you will be right because I’ve never celebrated it in (the religious) sense, but I join my Christian brothers during their celebration,” he said.
“We have very good Christian neighbours and Christian friends and some of them invite us to their home and have a meal with them; in this way we wish them Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. When we have our festival, they show the same feelings of wishing us what we celebrate.”
This year, Sadiq is hosting a Christmas dinner for his work colleagues.
He said his family has been very much appreciative of the shared values he sees between Christians and Muslims that are represented by the Christmas season and the acceptance they have found based on those values in their adopted home of Grand Falls-Windsor.
“I think the bottom thing is love and out of love comes everything, comes the peace, comes the sharing, comes the generosity and the desire to do good, even to those who are not really doing good to you,” he said. “So this is, I think, the theme and the message and those Christians who have understood that, you see that coming from them.”
Islam and Christianity share religious roots. In fact, there are some 70 references to Jesus in the Qur’an and a chapter named after his mother Mary.
“Jesus is a very honourable representative of God among Muslims also and His mother Virgin Mary is also very well-respected,” Sadiq said.
No religious affiliation
While Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Newfoundland and Labrador, the largest demographic shift has been among those who profess no religious affiliation. This group nearly tripled in the province from 2.5 per cent of the population in 2001 to 6.1 per cent in 2011.
Katherine Roberts, a former pastor with Victory Churches International who lives in Cottrell’s Cove, de-converted to atheism during the past year.
She is looking forward to Christmas more this year than she has in many years because a great deal of the pressure of the season she felt in the past has been lifted.
“When I was a Christian, I felt an almost militant need to ‘keep Christ in Christmas’,” she said. “I waged war against Santa Claus, Christmas carols that weren’t about baby Jesus, non-Christians celebrating ‘our’ holiday, and people trying to replace ‘Merry Christmas’ with ‘Happy Holidays.’
“This year, I will celebrate the holidays with my family and friends, reflecting on the past year, and looking forward to the new.”
By virtue of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Christian heritage, most atheists and non-religious people in the province come from Christian backgrounds.
Those who responded to The Central Voice described their celebration of the holiday as virtually indistinguishable from their Christian family members and friends, but with an emphasis on the underlying spirit of the season rather than its religious connotations.
One young atheist from the St. Anthony area, who didn’t want her grandparents to know, said Christmas is her favourite holiday and it’s the same for her now, “just less church.”
“I love being with my family and spending sweet quality time with them,” she said. “I have found since I came out as an atheist that I like Christmas even more. Family is most important to me.”