It is the season for us to have an open house

Growing up on the Cape Flats many years ago, it was not unusual to find Christians and Muslims celebrating religious holidays which they were not expected to celebrate. Christmas, for instance, was not seen as a Christian holiday but rather as a way of celebrating family unity, irrespective of their religious backgrounds.

To this day, it is not unusual to see many Muslim people rushing around frantically at the local shops, making sure that they have their Christmas supplies.

Like many other people on the Cape Flats, my family has always been a mix of Christians and Muslims, and my friendship circles have always included people from different religious persuasions, or no religious persuasion at all.

Some of my earliest childhood memories include going door to door in the Athlone area on Christmas and Eid (or Labarang as we called it then) extending our greetings in return for money and/or sweets and cakes. Obviously, we preferred money because we could decide how to use it but, also, there is a limit to how many cakes or sweets anyone can eat.

I bought a little tricycle when I was probably six or seven with money that I had “earned” in this way, by greeting people in their homes on their religious holidays. My tricycle was eventually stolen by one of my cousins, but that’s another story.

Later, after we moved to Hanover Park, I became part of a small group of friends who would spend most of our time together. This meant that we attended Muslim school and Sunday school together, attended a Christian youth group on a Wednesday night and a Muslim religious service on Thursday night.

We never saw each other as Muslim or Christian.

Later in life, I would develop problems with religion once it was brought to my attention the damage that had been done over the years, and in many countries, in the name of religion. I turned my back on most religious celebrations. I refused to celebrate anything that could be seen as supporting the harm done by religious zealots whose sole intention was to impose their beliefs on people.

Part of my attitude to religion was because of being introduced, during the Struggle, to the readings of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and others, and being exposed to the notion that religion was “the opium of the masses”.

Taking the train from Kapteinsklip station in Mitchells Plain to Cape Town every morning and experiencing the influence of lay preachers on the trains, convinced me that this notion was correct.

We were very serious about a lot of issues in the Struggle days and, in many cases, there was only black or white, and no grey.

Of course, as one gets older, one warms up to the idea of holidays and celebrations, and spending time with the family.

I still think that there are unscrupulous people who are using religion as some form of drug to cheat poor people out of their money – and here one has to think about the pastors who spray Doom on their congregants, or convince them to ingest Dettol, or eat snakes or grass. These pastors are enough reason for most people to turn their backs on religion.

But, over the years I have also been exposed to people who have shown me the good work that can be done by people with religious conviction. People who come to mind include Dr Allan Boesak and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the sanctions campaign against apartheid South Africa and which played a huge role in changing the minds of the Nationalist government who, up until then, appeared committed to apartheid; Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa who, as the secretary of the SA Catholics Bishops Conference, made sure that money was channelled to anti-apartheid organisations; and Ebrahim Rasool and Moulana (now Professor) Farid Esack, who led Muslims into the anti-apartheid movement, the United Democratic Front.

There are many other people who I have interacted with over the years and who impressed me with their commitment to religion and basic human rights.

After interacting with these people, I realised that I cannot let my view of religion be determined by zealots and extremists but that I should rather take my cue from people who embrace the beauty of life and who respect humanity.

This is why, at Christmas time my house becomes virtually an open house for people who might not be lucky enough to be with their families or might feel the need to be with a family. It is not so much about celebrating a Christian holiday but rather about celebrating what is good about religion and about people, in general.

After all, most religions celebrate humanity and the decent thing to do, if you embrace humanity, is to find ways of making sure that others always have reason to celebrate. Merry Christmas everyone.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 24 December 2016)