When I reflect on my childhood memories of celebrating the blessed month of Ramadan while growing up in Southern California in the 1980’s, different images flash through my mind
Ammi playing the Holy Qur’an on the house intercom system at sahoor time. Scrambled eggs and shaami kabaabs frying before the sun came up. Abbu sitting in the upstairs hallway outside his bedroom, reciting from the Book of Allah before he left for office. Coming home tired from school only to be set to work cutting up apples and oranges and bananas for the evening fruit salad, then helping my mother fry egg rolls and grape leaves. The night before Eid prayers the girls excitedly laying out their glass bangles and freshly ironed clothes and trying to sleep without spoiling the drying henna on their hands. The long distance calls from relatives overseas who shouted to be heard, wishing us well and sending us prayers for health and happiness. We crowded around the phone, grabbing it from one another, grinning and yelling back in order to make sure they too heard how much we loved and missed them.
There were annual traditions that I fondly remember as well, including the potluck iftar parties and masjid-sponsored Eid festivals. Who can forget the one auntie who always hosted the Jumat-al-Wida (farewell Friday of Ramadan) iftar in her spacious home? The children could always be found congregating around the cold-coffee urns set up in her backyard, eagerly vying with one another to be the first to taste the whipped cream-filled-dates set out on silver trays. Another auntie-and-uncle couple opened their home every Eid-ul-Fitr for a lavish breakfast buffet which was highly anticipated the moment Eid prayers were completed at the local fairgrounds a few minutes away.
Now that I am living in Northern California in a community made up primarily of converts to Islam, I am rediscovering the power of having traditions which children can look forward to and depend upon year after year. I have been fortunate in that I have been able to benefit from the creativity in my new friends who are eager to create Ramadan traditions that will attract and hold their children (who they fear may be lured by the competing sparkle and brilliance of Christmas festivities they witness in their own non-Muslim family members’ homes).
What touched me most when I sat with my girlfriends in the early days of motherhood as we brainstormed ideas for creating memorable Ramadan traditions was the sincerity and desire to ensure a balance between the material and the spiritual. These thoughtful women were extremely wary of falling prey to Western commercialism where Ramadan might inadvertently become yet another consumer month about gifts and cash and parties in the kids’ eyes; the culture of “gimme gimme gimme” was one everyone avidly wanted to avoid.
With that being said, I wanted to share some of the traditions we have been practicing in our own home with our three boys for the past ten years now. I asked my sons to list some of their favorite memories and traditions surrounding Ramadan, and these are the ones they rattled off without a moment’s hesitation.
Back in the year 2000, four families gathered at a scenic vista point in the Berkeley hills to try and search for the new moon signifying the beginning of Ramadan. When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find that two other Muslim families had also come up with the same idea and were already comfortably settled on the platform with binoculars and thermoses of hot chocolate by their sides. We introduced ourselves and scanned the skies together for the elusive crescent to appear over the majestic San Francisco skyline. As the years went by and word spread over time about this great location, more and more families have joined us. Our last moon-sighting trip had over 70 people (including a news reporter and photographer) gathered together with baked goodies to share and cups of hot chai to pass around. The children run amongst the adults with flashlights and sparklers in hand before being called over to join the jama’ah for group prayer under the stars. The anticipation builds from the moment we sit in our family van, blasting Yusuf Islam’s upbeat “Ramadan Moon” on the entire trip up through the twisting and turning roads in the mountains. Whether we sight the moon that night or not, there is excitement in the air and it is contagious; there’s just something about community that gets your “battery” charged to face a month of fasting together.
2.) Ramadan Calendar
Khadija O’Connell is an extremely talented lady whom many affectionately refer to as “the Muslim Martha Stewart”. Everything she touches seems to blossom simply by her presence. She has brought elegance and sophistication to the most mundane of things, and the pride she puts in her work is obvious. Whether she’s teaching a sewing class to a group of eight-year-old boys or organizing her highly acclaimed “Creativity and the Spiritual Path Conferences”, her attention to detail and aesthetics is of the highest caliber. I happen to know that her personal motto in life is based on the words of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi,“Let the beauty you love be what you do,” and I often find myself reflecting on the hadith, “Verily, Allah is Beautiful and He loves beauty,” whenever I witness anything she has had a hand in. If readers want to see for themselves, they need only visit her website www.barakahlife.com to appreciate what I’m talking about.
Nearly ten years ago, Khadija came up with an idea for her family which other people immediately wanted to replicate in their own homes. Using rich textiles with vibrant colors, she sewed a Ramadan Calendar, very similar to a Christmas advent calendar. She created 30 pockets with an attractive star button stitched onto each one. Felt was cut out into the shape of 30 crescent moons and stored in an organza drawstring pouch. A section of velvet was left at the top of the calendar so that a family could have their children’s names or a “Ramadan Mubarak” message embroidered there for posterity. We hang this gorgeous calendar in our dining nook and at every iftar, after eating their dates, the kids reach into the organza pouch and pull out a felt moon to slip onto the star button of the day. Then they dig into the pocket and pull out their treat for the evening. The treat can be anything from chocolates to stickers to collectible toys to race cars. We also tuck in a paper with one of Allah (subhana wa ta’ala)’s Names on it so that by the end of the month the kids can have learned at least a third of Allah’s Most Beautiful Names. Some families opt to put in a simple hadith every evening. The point is to use your own imagination and have fun while giving the kids a means to see how quickly the month is passing by. Many of us initially tried to sew these calendars on our own, but fortunately for everyone else who might be interested in taking on this tradition for their own young ones, Khadija now markets these special creations to great demand on her website.
3.) Decorating the House
It doesn’t matter that Ramadan will be arriving near the end of summer this year; you can be sure that our house will still be strung up with fairy lights (what some refer to as “Christmas lights”), insha’Allah. I bought some darling garden lanterns during the end-of-spring-season sales last year, so now we have those gold and maroon paper lanterns to string up around the living room as well. The boys are more than willing to help their father with the task of illuminating the Mukhtar home; it has become a family project where the mother directs and the men obey…and everyone enjoys the experience immensely.
Another friend decorates her house with “the Ramadan chain of kindness”. Everyone in her family goes out of their way to acknowledge a simple (or significant) deed of kindness they witness any family member performing by recording it on a strip of construction paper. They make a point of not including the name of the do-gooder in order to discourage pride and encourage humility for the sake of Allah (subhana wa ta’ala). They then curl these strips into rings and connect them to one another. When we were invited to her home for iftar one evening, we noticed this paper chain of links winding its way around the living room; each strip had a comment written on it like “helped change a diaper”, “took out the garbage”, “washed the salad”, “brought mommy water”. They also placed a homemade sign in their public street-facing window which read “So-and-So Family wishes you all a Happy Ramadan!”
4.) Baking Cookies for the Neighbors
It started out as a neighborhood outreach plan, but over the years has become something much bigger than we ever imagined, alhamdulillah.
Soon after the tragic events of 9/11, we baked some yummy cookies at home, packaged them in plastic boxes with a “FastBreak” candy bar (get the pun?), and delivered them to our neighbors’ mailboxes along with a note explaining Ramadan and our ummah’s wish for world peace and joy in 2001. It has now become a community event with friends gathering at each other’s houses and mosques to package star and crescent shaped cookies (sprinkled with green sugar) in gold boxes with da’awah messages typed on sparkly vellum paper and shimmering organza ribbons to tie everything together. We have managed to work with the same popular local bakery for the past five years now, and the kids get a great kick out of running around the neighborhood delivering the treats. My own sons once reflected how it was the completely opposite experience of trick-or-treating — we’re here to give you a treat, not demand one for ourselves, and no one is out to “scare” or “trick” anyone. It’s a celebration of lightness, not darkness!
5.) Donating to the Food Bank
Our county’s Food Bank has come to really appreciate the month of Ramadan.
They tell us their shelves are loaded during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, but they have a difficult time keeping up with the needs of the poor during the rest of the ten months of the year. Since Ramadan follows the Islamic lunar calendar, it moves throughout the year and — thanks to the generosity of local Muslims — they can now anticipate full shelves once again in the month of August, insha’Allah. Our Islamic Center has found, however, that if you ask people to donate groceries or bring in necessary items on their own, good intentions often are not followed through upon with solid actions; therefore, we have taken it upon ourselves to facilitate our members’ sincerity by making it easy for them to feed the hungry.
Our children have a new Ramadan tradition now which requires them to gather at the Islamic Center to bag basic pantry staples — cereal, pasta, juice, canned fruits and vegetables — in paper sacks. It takes quite a bit of time and it is hard work, but the children enjoy it nevertheless. These bags of groceries are then sold at Friday prayers for $5 each. People purchase the bags in the names of their children or spouses or families and then these sacks are placed in the Food Bank barrels which are provided by the Food Bank with their official logo. At the end of the month, a large truck arrives from the Food Bank and the men and children from our community help load the month’s donations. There is often a news crew covering the event as well which makes for some positive media in these times when Muslims so desperately need it.
An easier way to give charity during this sacred month, however, is to have your kids decorate a glass mason jar and label it “Sadaqa Jar”. They put in their own money throughout the month and on Eid morning they donate the contents to the local masjid. I have my kids say their own special, private duas while they give charity so that they can continue to be aware of their complete reliance on Allah’s Generosity…especially when they are in a position of giving to those less fortunate. May they always have the means and the desire to help others, insha’Allah.
6.) Waking Up On Eid Morning
At some point during the night before Eid prayers, my husband and I sneak in the helium tank we rented from the local party supply store a day earlier. While the kids are sleeping, we inflate as many gold and silver balloons as we can and then attach long dangling glittery ribbons to them. We cram as many of these balloons as possible in the children’s bedroom so that, when they wake up for Fajr prayer, they are greeted with a vision of sparkle and magic. We also leave a trail of balloons leading out of their room down the stairs to the pile of gifts stacked near the dining room table. I know that after so many years the kids are on to our routine, but they humor their parents anyway by whooping it up and grabbing the balloons the moment they awaken. Believe me when I tell you that this is a tradition that gives as much to the parents as it does to the children.
Another friend has me baby-sit for one Ramadan afternoon so that she can go shopping in secret for her children’s Eid baskets. She exerts quite a bit of effort in elaborately decorating large wicker baskets with ribbon and paper. Then she thoughtfully chooses items that she knows her two children will treasure — a set of new oil paints for her artistic son, an embroidery kit for her creative daughter, books by their favorite authors, new hijabs and kufis and socks, high quality prayer beads, delicious chocolates — everything is carefully arranged on a mound of tissue paper. The children wake up on Eid morning and find the baskets of goodies — one pink, one blue — waiting for them at the foot of their beds.
The kids’ reward for fasting the month of Ramadan is obviously with Allah (subhana wa ta’ala), but we parents want to show our pride and pleasure in them as well, and these are such easy ways to do it. The looks of pure joy and delight on the children’s faces makes the parents’ late night effort well-worth it!
* * *
A respected scholar once told us that he knows of people who have held onto their Islam simply because they remember experiencing wonderful, memorable Eids with their families. There really is something magnetic in the pull that Ramadan has on us. We love to telephone each other late at night and excitedly announce, “Ramadan Kareem! Yes, it’s confirmed! So-and-So sighted the moon!” We enjoy discussing our preparations for the upcoming month of fasting with one another. We desire to be part of the community that is persevering through days of hunger and nights of worship together. We feel connected to Muslims everywhere — whether they are students in school, co-workers at the office, or taxi drivers who are taking us to our destinations — through these shared daily experiences of knowing what it means to deprive the body and feed the soul.
Children especially thrive off of the routine and rhythm we offer them. I became aware of this one year when I thought I had misplaced our treasured Ramadan calendar. I reassured my boys that I would look for it later but that we would just have to “make do” for the first iftar without the calendar hanging in our dining nook as in years past; I would still be sure to provide the iftar treat that would otherwise have been discovered in the calendar. They put on cheerful faces and agreeable attitudes, reassuring me that all was well, but as he was going to his room, my eldest betrayed the feelings of his brothers by sighing, “I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t feel like Ramadan for some reason this year.” Their sense of disappointment nagged at me, so I put off my procrastinating and, once they were in bed, went searching and uncovered the calendar at the bottom of my linen cabinet. When I casually called up to them, “By the way, I did find our Ramadan calendar after all!”, I was surprised by the cheers of relief that came from their bedrooms. I don’t think any of us realized how much this tradition meant to our family until we were faced with the threat of losing it.
Now that the boys are getting older, our emphasis with them is more on the spiritual benefits of Ramadan and less on the “Santa Claus is coming to Ramadan” attitude. We encourage one another to focus on our love for our Lord and our desire to be close to Him. This month is still — as always — about being good neighbors and good Muslims, but we hope our behavior isn’t anything “new” in the eyes of our Creator and that we can continue to benefit from any little that we accomplish this month throughout the rest of the year until the next blessed Ramadan arrives…if Allah allows us to live that long, insha’Allah.
May Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) reward all parents who work so diligently at teaching their children about their responsibilities to Allah and His Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam). May our kids all grow up with a deep and abiding love for their deen and its duties in their hearts. And may Allah bestow His Mercy and Generosity on us all this blessed Ramadan and make it the best ever so far. Aameen. Readers are sincerely requested to please keep the writer of this article in their prayers as well. JazakAllahu khayr.