Muḥarram (Arabic: مُحَرَّم muḥarram) is the first month of the Islamic calendar. It is one of the four sacred months of the year. It is held to be the second holiest month, after Ramadan.
Ideally, and traditionally, religious work should be done first and foremost as a service to Allah. It doesn't not mean that one cannot be paid for it, but just that money shouldn't be the main goal. If someone's main goal is money, there are other professions which are more lucrative.
Religious work - like art or sports or other endeavors which require a lot of dedication - has the highest quality when it is done out of sincerity and love for what one is doing. When it is done primarily for financial gain, it loses something. Also, when it is done with money as the priority, the speaker or reciter loses their freedom to speak the truth as they see it and can begin to feel compelled to please the people rather than please the Truth.
There have been some notable scholars throughout history who took no money for their efforts.
However, on the flip side, it is good for communities to assist those who serve them financially. When a community hears a speech or majlis, they only see the hour or two of the program. However, the person delivering it may have had to take time off of paid work to prepare or travel, invest time and money in training and books and developing speaking skills, etc, etc. For instance, if someone takes 2 weeks off of work to travel to give majalis, they are losing a lot of their basic income.
Some people also rely on lectures and majalis for their income, especially because sometimes people who work full-time in the religious community are not in a good financial situation. Often it is the people who are the most reliant on receiving hediyas that are shy to ask for high amounts or specific amounts. So it is good to be thoughtful of that and to be generous within the range of what is possible.
As far as the permissibility, it is permissible just like any lecturer who is allowed to demand his fees but it is advisable for those who serve religion to avoid high charging. Most of our scholars teach people with out any charges. Yet it is not Haraam to charge but reasonably.
Possibly, some of the hadith saying that many important things in ancient sacred history happened on this day were fabricated in the time of the Umayyads to take attention away from the martyrdom of Imam Husain (A).
Of course, God knows best, and if miraculous or amazing things happened in the past on this day, it is something that He would know the reasons for.
The main point is that you believe and feel grief for Imam Husain (AS). It is a condition for every believer to love the Prophet (SAWA) and his Holy Progeny Ahlul Bayt (AS) more than loving himself and his own family.
The way how to express this noble feeling of grief and sadness depends on you and your culture but it must be within the frame of Islamic rules
You were brought up in USA, so you may not be familiar with the Matam practiced by your brothers in faith who came from the Indian sub continent or other countries. You wrote that you felt wrong on seeing them. This feeling does not make you away from following Ahlul Bayt (AS) as far as you believe in Ahlul Bayt (AS) being the Most pious leaders of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) and you feel grief for their tragedies.
Islam as the religion for all human beings, gives all of them the choice to express their feelings according to their own different cultures and ways as far as it remains in the frame of Shariah.
Yes, you can still be considered a true follower of Ahl al-Bayt if you do not take part in matam or public mourning ceremonies. These things are optional. The most important things are (a) inner belief (i.e. belief in the theology taught by Ahl al-Bayt as well as belief in their authority), and (b) following them in your outer actions to the best of your ability (acts of worship, how you treat others, how you live, etc).
Of course, as you are likely aware, one of the things that is mentioned in hadith is that the followers of Ahl al-Bayt feel happy at their times of happiness and sad in their times of sadness; that is, there is a sort of empathy or emotional link. Since you say you feel grief, this is already there; I am just mentioning it so it is not neglected.
I agree that sometimes people from more reserved cultures are uncomfortable with matam ceremonies. This is particularly the case if someone grew up with the tacit message that expressions of emotion are socially unacceptable, unmanly, weak, undignified, etc, or if someone was punished for them.
Sometimes people from a Sunni background are also uncomfortable at these gatherings (even if they come from emotionally expressive cultures).
However, even if you choose not to participate in these activities, it is good to acknowledge and respect that many other Shi'is do and this is the way they express their emotions and loyalty towards Ahl al-Bayt. That is, it is better simply to acknowledge that it is one's personal preference not to attend, rather than to try to make a blanket statement that it is wrong for others to do so. There is a strong spiritual component to these gatherings (although I could understand that this might not be felt if one is feeling shock instead), and they do function to forge a link between the individual and the teachings of Ahl al-Bayt that can come into play in other life circumstances.
To some degree, you will miss out on a sense of community spirit, belonging, or shared experience by not participating in these activities, because they are so widespread, but this is a different issue.
Also, this may or may not be of interest, but if you do look around at world religions, there are actually a lot of religions that have ritual or spiritual acts which involve a sort of emotional/intellectual abandon or self-harm. (For instance, speaking in tongues or nailing one's self to a cross) What makes these things "safe" ways of exploring or expressing one's spirituality is that they are controlled and there are unwritten rules about what is and is not acceptable, and when. For instance, someone walking down the street randomly doing matam would be seen as mentally unstable, but someone doing it in a ritual setting at the appropriate time would be seen as normal. Also this is similar for a some Sufi practices. This is more of a comparative religious studies perspective, but I just thought I'd put it out there.
Anyway, back to the main question, here are some hadith (which you may have already read!) about what constitutes a true follower of Ahl al-Bayt:
Imam al-Hasan (a.s.) said in answer to a man who said to him, ‘Verily I am one of your Shi’ah’, ‘O ‘Aabdallah, if you are truly obedient to us in our commands and prohibitions, then you are telling the truth. But if not, then do not add to your sins by falsely claiming such a dignified position that you are not worthy of. Do not say, ‘I am one of your Shi’ah’, but say rather, ‘I am one of your adherents and one of your lovers and an enemy to your enemies.’ You are [doing] good and aiming towards good.’[Tanbih al-Khawatir, v. 2, p. 106]
Imam al-Baqir (a.s.) said, ‘Our Shi’ah are none other than those who are consciously wary of their duty to Allah and obey Him. They are known solely for their humbleness, their humility, their returning promptly whatever is entrusted in their care and their Abundant remembrance of Allah.’[Tuhaf al-’Uqul, p. 295]
Imam al-Sadiq (a.s.) said, ‘Verily the Shi’ah of Ali were those who restrained their stomachs and their sexual desires, who struggled and fought intensely, who worked hard for their Creator, who hoped for His reward and feared His punishment. If you have seen such people, then they are the very Shi’ah of Ja’afar.’[al-Kafi, v. 2, p. 233, no. 9]
Imam al-Sadiq (a.s.) said, ‘Test our Shi’ah with regard to three things: the prayer times to see how well they observe them, their secrets to see how well they guard them from our enemies, and their wealth to see how they help out their fellow brothers with it.’[Bihar al-Anwar, v. 83, p. 22, no. 40]
Anyway, I hope you are able to find a way to sort out the unease you are feeling.
The first ten days of Muharram are the days of the sufferings of Ahlul Bayt (AS) which started on the arrival in Karbala on the second day of Muharram and ended on the tenth day of Muharram which is called Aashura, when Imam Husain (AS) was martyred along with his family members and companions in Karbala in year 61 After Hijra. These ten days are been observed by Ahlul Bayt (AS) and their followers as days of mourning and grief. Imam Reza (AS) said that his father Imam Musa Al-Kadhim (AS) was always observing these ten days with grief and sadness.
Followers of Ahlul Bayt (AS) observe these ten days with Majaalis (religious gatherings and sermons) remembering the tragedies of Karbala and the aims and teachings of Imam Husain (AS). Millions of believers attend these gatherings all over the world, and thousands of lectures and sermons are delivered to enlighten people and purify their behavior and make them better human beings. Millions of poor people are been fed during these ten days as a practice of generosity which is part of the teachings of Imam Husain (AS).
Most importantly, we need to appreciate and thank Allah (SWT) who granted us His guidance and did not leave us away from the Truth of Real Islam of Muhammad and His Ahlul Bayt (AS).
There are few suggestions :
1. Reciting of Ziyarat Aashura is very great every day or when ever you can.
2. Talking to and inviting people to the Truth of Imam Husain (AS) in any suitable way which should be wise and helpful in making people realize the fact of the Real Islam of Imam Husain and distinguish it from the corrupt religion of Yazeed and his gangsters.
3. Gifting good deeds to Imam Husain (AS) and his family and followers.
4. Serving the mourners on Imam Husain (AS) and the religious activities.
5. Reading more about he life and sayings of Imam Husain (AS and passing the information to people.
It is allowed to use or rent or hire for religious activities including Namaz, Majaalis, lectures etc, a place which was or is used in un-Islamic way on other times. It is like the road where we walk on, which is used by good people and bad people. Every one is responsible of his acts.
No doubt, we need to be sure about Taharat in the place of prostration (Sojood) of Namaz.
Musical instruments and alcohol related items should be removed during the religious gathering to keep the respect of the religious activity.