Embrace the opportunity to give joy (not stuff) for kids' birthdays
Q: My sister married a Muslim and converted. We live in cities several hours apart, but the family comes together for Thanksgiving, and I have brought birthday gifts for her children in years past.
I sent my sister an e-mail this year asking for gift suggestions, and she told me to not buy them anything because they celebrated two Eid holidays this fall, which is when they exchange gifts in their religion. She wanted the Eid holidays to remain extra special and the children not to become spoiled with too many gifts. My sister still plans to have a cake for them.
Growing up, the "gift" days for children in our family were Christmas and birthdays. It was disappointing when my sister gave up Christmas, but it was understood and respected. However, I am now saddened not to experience the joy of seeing the young children's faces as they open their birthday gifts. The passing of each of these events, which customarily brings family together, seemingly works as another step in feeling distance and disconnect from the children.
I would like to retain some sort of feeling of commonality with them. Is there anything I can do on their birthdays to show them their non-Muslim family loves them enough to buy them gifts too, without offending my sister's wishes?
Losing My Family to Religion
A: You're losing a gift-giving opportunity to religion. If you want to lose your family to religion, the best way to do that is to rage against the dying of your traditions, instead of adapting to theirs.
Have you ever asked to be included in their Eid celebrations?
I understand your frustration at being denied the chance to spoil your nieces and nephews. But it couldn't hurt to consider that spoiling with material gifts is overrated; it's not as if the typical middle-class kid (or adult) has any shortage of stuff.
And gifts aren't the only way to spend money on, or time with, these children, nor are birthdays the only occasion to do so. You can take them to movies, games, plays or concerts; bake with them; go on nature walks with them; create art projects with them (bring materials and a plan with you to the family gathering). Ask your sister about their interests versus gift ideas, and you'll probably get a more satisfying answer. Feed those interests, versus their toy chests, and you'll probably see more than once-a-year joy on their faces.
Show a little Christmas spirit: Don't be so hard on pagan sister
Q: What do you say to a family member who doesn't want to go to Christmas Eve services with the family because the church is not her religion (she decided she was a pagan a few years ago), but shows up bright and early Christmas morning to get her Christmas presents? I grit my teeth every time she gleefully opens her gifts!
A: If you're looking to enforce religious purity, Christmas isn't the place to start. The date itself traces credibly to winter-solstice traditions. And, American-style Christmas was cobbled together in the 1800s, using Christian, pagan, commercial, literary and various other cultural bits and pieces. If your sister isn't giving gifts as well as receiving, then you have a case. Otherwise, smile and think generous thoughts (also a Christmas tradition).