With Santa Costume, Muslim Workers Don Cloak of Doubt and Guilt

Marcel Thee meets Muslims struggling to reconcile their work commitments with their personal beliefs during Christmas

Shoppers visit a mall decked-out in Christmas decorations on Dec 16, 2013. (EPA Photo/Bagus Indahono)

Shoppers visit a mall decked-out in Christmas decorations on Dec 16, 2013. (EPA Photo/Bagus Indahono)

With porcelain skin, the height of a model and sculpture-like features, Diana is a very eye-catching mobile phone saleswoman. This December, the red Santa hats that she and her colleagues don at their post in front of an elaborately decorated Christmas tree make Diana and her shop just that much more noticeable among the mid-day mall crowd. Nothing about this is out of the ordinary. It is just another example of a corporation getting the best out of the season. However, Christmas — its pop culture connections notwithstanding — is inherently a Christian holiday and Diana is Muslim.

This happens every year, of course. Malls get decked with majestic plastic trees, fake puffy cotton snow, toddler-sized candy canes and North Pole fashion for shopkeepers. It’s all a cheery habit that happens with many other religious holidays as well. However, for some the Christmas aesthetic they are expected to take part in goes over and above the uncomfortable agreement their workplace demands.

“If my parents knew I was wearing this,” Diana says pointing at her jolly red hat, “they would be extremely upset,” says the 23-year-old, who asked that her real name not be used for the purposes of this story. She also asked that the mall where she works not be divulged.

Though her parents are “understanding” Muslims, Diana says she considers donning a “Christian-related” hat creates an emotional conflict in her that she can only justify because she needs to make some money.

“This is easy money that I make [as sales promotion girl, or SPG]. I don’t mind wearing whatever kind of dresses my employees ask,” she says, no doubt referring to the revealing mini dresses that saleswomen are often asked to wear.

“But wearing something that goes against my belief system is very uncomfortable,” Diana said.

Like many of her peers, Diana’s solution is to pray that no one she knows will be traversing whatever mall she is working at.

Likewise, Lisa (not her real name), a shopkeeper at a clothing store at a mall in Serpong, Tangerang, says jokingly that she is always prepared to take off her Santa hat at the sight of “any old men in a peci [skull cap] because they look like [her] dad.”

Lisa, who is currently holding her first job, says that wearing a Santa hat is “not too bad,” but she fears that her company may ask her to wear something more elaborately Christmas-y.

“Maybe next they’ll ask us to wear a [full] Christmas and Santa costume too; all red,” she says, though she admits that this fear has as much to do with not wanting to look foolish as not wanting to violate her religious beliefs.

“It’s fine,” says Hasan, an attendant at a surf-related clothing store at the Lippo Supermall who only agreed to give out his first name.

Unlike Diana, 20-year-old Hasan has no qualms about being a Muslim wearing a Santa hat and spending eight hours a day listening to a Christmas music playlist throughout the month of December.

“It’s just a funny character and story,” he says of Santa and the folklore that surrounds jolly old St. Nick. Hasan admits that he knows little about how Santa Claus is tied to Christmas.

“I don’t know what Santa is for Christians,” he says. “Is he some kind of prophet?”

Hasan says that everything goes back to how his “soul” is comfortable with his own beliefs. He considers it odd that some non-Christians feel uncomfortable with what he considers the simple task of just wearing a costume. “If [the employers] ask us to perform a religious ritual, that might be a different issue, but this is OK,” Hasan rationalizes.

Diana and Lisa feel differently from Hasan but they seem to have come to terms with donning their seasonal getup without much fanfare. By Diana’s third day on this particular gig, she admits to barely realizing that she was wearing Christmas wear. Quite a feat considering she adheres to the belief that Muslims should not be involved in anything related to Christmas.

“I have many Christian friends, but no, I don’t wish them a merry Christmas. It is against my [religious and familial] teachings,” she says. Diana added that the Christmas ornaments at her work space made her feel slightly uncomfortable, “like I’m celebrating it.”

Lisa has experienced the same kind of regularity and acceptance, saying that her working days go without much fanfare, as usual. Asked whether there have been any uncomfortable moments or experiences that came from “dressing up Christian,” she said no.

“All my colleagues [the majority of whom are Muslim] wear the same thing, which helps make me feel comfortable. Most of them have undergone the same emotional conflict before and they let me know that what I’m doing is OK and not a sin,” she said.

For his part, Hasan says that he has experienced mild teasing from his close friends whenever they pass by his work place, but it has always been in good spirit.

For Randy Apriza Akbar, the manager of a large-scale event and wedding photography team whose job requires frequent photo gigs at churches during Christian ceremonies, there is no dilemma.

The majority of the people on his various photo crews are Muslim, and none have balked at the idea of undertaking a Christian-related job, including the few corporate Christmas parties they’ll be documenting nearing the 25th.

“What matters is that we are making money in a halal way,” the 26-year-old Muslim says. The Jakarta Globe

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