Navigating the Holidays in a Mixed-Faith Family

December 23, 2016

Zoe Paknad, Food52's Account Executive, was raised by an Iranian, Muslim father and a white, Christian mother. Though Zoe's mother converted to Islam upon marriage, she still clung to certain traditions she'd known from childhood, like listening to taped sermons. For Zoe, what's resulted is a lifetime of navigating these two Abrahamic faiths—and the traditions they enshrined—in a way that feels meaningful for her. Each December, she faces this duality when she decides where she'll be for Christmas: Will she be with the Christian side of her family in California, or will she visit her father's Muslim family in Tehran?

I spoke to Zoe about how she and her family have navigated these faiths, and how this plays out tangibly in her own life. What follows is a condensed version of what Zoe relayed to me about how she observes her faith, especially in December.

My dad was born in Tehran, the capital city of Iran, and my mom is from a really poor farm town in California called Stockton. She grew up super poor with a ton of siblings and really, really young parents. In contrast, my dad grew up in a nice household, the youngest of the family with four older sisters. So he was the precious prince of the family. He came to the United States to go to college in 1977—before the Iranian Revolution in 1979—and couldn’t come back to Iran after because of the Revolution. My dad grew up very casually in his Muslim faith, observing a lot of typical traditions and holidays.

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But he was not strictly religious enough to want to be part of the Iranian Revolution. Religion became charged for him because of the Iranian Revolution. It went from being a fact of life to this tense, politicized thing. It was easier for him to be in America. My dad came out here with $200 bucks and tried to start school; he worked multiple waiter jobs to pay his way through. He went to a community college in Santa Cruz, followed by the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). Sort of similar to that, my mom worked a few odd jobs to get through college, too, because her parents were working class. She also went to UCSC. My dad came from a comfortable childhood and my mom came from a rough one, but once they reached the same place, they were both really bootstrapped.

My mom was raised by her mom and stepdad—her dad died in war—but she still kept in touch with her paternal, blood grandmother, who was pretty religious. My mom, who is white, used to go to this historic black church in her grandmother's town, very far from where my mom grew up. She cherished these memories of going to church with her grandmother. My mom didn’t go to church with her siblings or parents at all. She went with her grandma, always.

My mom converted to Islam right before my parents’ marriage. Her parents didn't mind at all. My dad's a pretty great dude, so it wasn't a hard sell. My parents had me in 1993; I'm their only child. I grew up in a really secular town, Palo Alto in Silicon Valley. My mom and I have been to church twice in my life—which is to say, barely—but we would still do things that she did with her grandmother. Growing up, I would go to my grandparents’ house [in Stockton] in the summer, listen to my Johnny Cash and Carter family gospels. I would even listen to them with my mom every day on the way to school.

On the flip side, when I thought about God or religion, I was always attuned to the stories and lore of Islam. My dad always maintained his core beliefs in God and Islam, and those eventually became mine. The Quran was the book that appealed to me [more than the Bible], so I made my decision to follow Islam when I was pretty young. I listened to recorded recitations from the Quran every night. I grew up with cousins who hated Islam and said Islam was the reason why they’d never be happy or that they didn’t get to grow up normally. When I hear the Quran recited, I get all these feelings I can’t describe. You hear the Quran recited when you’re at a funeral, when someone’s laid to rest. It’s also done when people get married. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, or am stressed, or stay up at night because I’m scared or overwhelmed, I'll listen to these recitations. Ever since I was a kid, I've put the Quran on as a way to rock myself to sleep. I still listen to the Quran every night.

When it comes to Christmas, I split my time. I've switched off every other year. Some years I’ll go to Iran and not even know what day Christmas is. My whole family lives there. Other years, though, I’ll go to my mom’s family’s house in Stockton and be with my white, Christian side of my family. It’s all of us together. We have this blown out Christmas dinner with a ham; we have a huge tree. The kids wake up at 5 AM because they’re excited to celebrate. My dad loves getting presents. Even though he's Muslim, he’s adopted Christmas with joy. He’s like, yeah, let’s spend money on each other! These two Christmases are such a hard switch, though. We’re either going to do Christmas hardcore in Stockton or go to Tehran and pretend Christmas doesn’t exist, and we'll be with family members who follow Islam pretty strictly.

Even though I'm not Christian, I still do listen to the gospel music and the Cash-Carter sermons these days. I’m still lucky that both faiths of my family are Abrahamic religions, so it’s easy for me to cross over and switch between my Christian and Muslim selves. I’m a little bit of both, and I always will be.

Are you a member of a mixed-faith family? What's your experience been like around the holidays? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.

1 Comment

Laury December 23, 2016
Hello, very nice read. I was born in a Puerto Rican Catholic family, not so religious as far as going to church regularly but, always did what was right and be a good person. I got married at 21 to a Palestinian Muslim man, didn't convert until 8-10 years later. I didn't feel any different because Islam teaches you to be a good person and I was already that, maybe a little more God conscience and I also prayed and fasted on Ramadan with him prior to converting. (If you ask my mother what is different about me , she'll say " only the hijab". It was actually my children who converted me to Islam. At a young age my children went to Islamic schools and taught me what they learned when they came home. My children are young adults now. They love their Islam, the religion that we practice but, they also love the Christmas Holiday with my Catholic family.
Because of the diversity of race and religion in my family, not only my immediate family but, my siblings and their children are also of various religions and race. I feel my children are more understanding of other cultures, they see no color, love you as you are and are very humble.

Merry Christmas 🎄