Mom’s Christmas, Our Ramadan

I grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a conservative Pakistani Pathan Muslim and a small-town American Mormon. Theirs was a marriage founded on somewhat foolish optimism.  Both of my parents assumed they would have the other converted to their own faith within months. My childhood memories of mom’s Christmases, our Eids, mom’s Easters and our Ramadans, serve as a testament to the contrary. This recollection comes from the strange serendipitous period where two of those major religious events – the Muslim month of Ramadan and the Christmas season – overlapped.

My mother would start baking Christmas cookies sometime around Thanksgiving and the cookie she’d always start with was gingerbread – cut into small man and woman shapes. There was something about the bite of Chicago’s autumn that would trigger some Midwestern American programming and right away my mother would begin to warm the house with the smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and vanilla. The colder it got, the more one needed a strong gingerbreadman to keep them going, so at any given time from November till early January, you could find huge bowls of gingerbread cookie dough in our fridge, ready and waiting to fill the next gingerbreadman-shaped hole in our lives.

When I was in high school my mother’s seasonal baking madness took place at the same time as Ramadan – our Islamic month of fasting. That was when we discovered that gingerbread cookies make an amazing iftar. Like a lot of American Muslims, our iftars didn’t have the pomp and preparation as the ones we’d seen back in the ‘home country’ – with giant trays of deep-fried savories, bowls of fruit salad, and pitchers of pink rose-flavored milk. Who had the time? Few of us tended even to be home by the time those printed calendars on our fridges from Madina Meat Market or Noor Masjid announced when the maghrib adhan would sound, if it even could.

Iftar consisted of whatever was on hand for whomever was on hand, and that year there were always gingerbreadmen on hand. Mom would have made dozens of them and unlike other cookies, gingerbread cookies were only improved by age and the molasses, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg that preserved them. They seemed to only taste better after they had sat around, becoming a perfect accompaniment for the mug of tea or milk that would be the major part of our quiet iftars.

From that year on, gingerbread cookies have been rolled into our Ramadan repertoire. As the month of Shabaan would wind down and likely moon sightings would be discussed, out would come the mixer and molasses to ensure we had all the Christmas cookies you could want for iftar. They would be there waiting, jumbled in the cookie jar, till they could be brought out and set beside our usual fare of dates, fruit, and tea.

Over the years not only did we perfect our recipe, but we also made gingerbreadmen in every shape one could imagine. We made gingerbread hijabis, gingerbread Punjabis, gingerbread pirates, gingerbread niqabis, gingerbread ninjas – the questionable Islamic acceptability of food with faces notwithstanding. Friends would come over and bring their children, to roll, cut, bake and decorate their own tasty cookie people. We have mailed gingerbread men and women across the globe and taken carefully packed boxes of them as gifts when visiting distant friends.

These off-season gingerbreadmen have become our family signature. Partly because, well, they really are that wonderful. Their sweet spiciness smells of comfort and home. Crisp, but not hard, they have the right amount of sweetness with enough kick to not be lost in a glass of cold milk or hot coffee. For me, Ramadan gingerbreadmen are a sweet and simple legacy of the bag of mixed nuts that is my family.

Mixed religion marriages are not easy and tend to come at perhaps too great a cost. But, that is where I come from. Gingerbreadmen will forever remain a sweet and spiced reminder of that.


Gingerbread Cookies Recipe

Cookie dough:
2 cups of sugar

1 cup butter, softened to room temperature
3 tablespoons molasses (or date syrup is a good substitute)

1 egg
2 tablespoons water or milk
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt  (omit if using salted butter)
1 tablespoon cinnamon powder
2 teaspoons ginger powder
½  teaspoon clove powder (optional)
½ teaspoon nutmeg powder (optional)

In large bowl, beat sugar, butter and molasses until light and fluffy. Add egg and water or milk, blend well. Stir in flour, soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg; mix well to form a smooth dough.  Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate for 1 hour for easier handling.

Heat oven to 350 F.  On floured surface, roll out one-third of the dough to 1/8 inch thick.  Cut with floured cookie cutter.  Place the cookies ½ inch apart on ungreased flat baking pan.  Bake for 10-12 minutes or just before they start to darken at the edges.  Time will vary according to how thick you roll your dough. Immediately remove from baking pan using spatula and set on rack to cool. Cool completely before frosting.

¾ cup cold water
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
¾ cup granulated (regular) sugar
¾ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla

in medium size (2 quart) sauce pan, combine water and gelatin.  Let stand 5 minutes.  Stir in 3/4 cup sugar, bring to a boil.  Reduce heat; simmer (low boil over medium/low heat) for 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in powdered sugar; beat till foamy. Stir in baking powder and vanilla; beat at highest speed until thick, about 10 minutes. Immediately divide frosting into 3 or 4 small plastic freezer bags, leaving enough room to twist and tie the bags shut. Let the frosting cool enough so the bags do not burn your hands when you handle them. Snip a very tiny hole in the corner of the bag and gently squirt the frosting out to decorate the cooled cookies.  When the frosting gets too cold or hard to squeeze, microwave it at low power for a few seconds till frosting is slightly warm to the touch and easily squeezable. Knead bag gently in hands to mix the warmed frosting.  Frosting should be just slightly warmer than body temperature the whole time you are using it.  Bags of unused frosting will keep in the fridge for weeks.  Just heat it slowly and gently in microwave before use. Leave decorated cookies out to dry for 2 hours or so, until the frosting is no longer sticky.

Zarina Khan is Muslim woman who’s had the joy and dubious luck of being raised by a Pakistan-American Muslim father and an Anglo-American Mormon mother. She is, by consequence, a bit jumbled, and can’t always remember which prophet story comes from the Quran and which from the Bible. She currently lives and works in the United Arab Emirates as a science writer.



10 Comments on “Mom’s Christmas, Our Ramadan”

  1. What a rich childhood you had! Must be a bit chaos but wonderful I think. To be in-between world of two religions that don’t always agree on principle. Your story is compelling, show to tell the world we can get along after all if we work at it 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sheen says:

    What a sweet story! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Loved this story, not dissimilar to my own. Thank you for sharing your memories ❤️

  4. Beautiful post. It just goes to show how much richness there is in diversity.

  5. Zarina Khan says:

    Folakemiodoaje and Margherita. Indeed, there is richness in diversity, as well as adversity. They both lend us strength and character. 🙂

  6. Carol says:

    Thanks for sharing the story of our mixed up lives. Ohhh, that makes me want to check the shelves to see if I have everything I need to bake a batch for Eid. This year they will be gluten-free and sweetened with locally grown date syrup.

  7. noorlaila265 says:

    Reblogged this on more than hijab and commented:
    Beautiful recollection of a childhood celebrating Ramadan alongside Christmas

  8. Chinyere says:

    This was absolutely beautiful! Thanks for sharing. I also come from an interfaith Christian-Muslim household and struggled around the holidays, but this story gives a little piece of beautiful balance. I’m not sure if the cost is too great if there is peace, love, and understanding as you seem to illustrate in this story.

  9. Reem says:

    What a beautiful story; my mum also used to make ginger cookies for Eid, but I was so inspired by your story I am going to give your recipe a try, thanks.

  10. anchorkeidi says:

    A story of tolerance, diversity, family, food, memories. I’m noting down the recipe for a trial soon in sha Allah.