“Santa Claus never died for anybody,” reads a photo of a mock church sign making the rounds on Facebook this Christmas.
This photo along with a carton of a kid sitting on the lap of a Santa Claus saying, “Where are you in the Bible,” may be evidence that many – most specifically African-Americans – are uncomfortable with Santa Claus and the commercialization of Christmas.
However, Obery Hendricks, visiting scholar at the Institute for Research in African American Studies and Department of Religion at Columbia University, wonders if African-Americans have any kind of critique of the commercialization of Christmas.
“Absolutely, we should be concerned,” he comments via phone. “There are problems that have to do with the social pressure African Americans – particularly as children – feel to fit in with the rest of society. Children feel left out if they do not get an ‘x’ number of gifts on Christmas.”
He believes Americans, in general, are swept along by the tide of materialism with regard to Christmas in much of the same way we are swept away with materialism of everything else.
According to Adam Clark, an assistant professor of Systematic Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, everyone is concerned about the over commercialization of Christmas. African Americans are particularly concerned because of the economical disadvantage of the community.
“There is definitely a concern,” he said via phone. “Most Christian pastors, I would say, try to separate the message of Christ from what’s happening in the general culture. There is something distinctively happening in black churches.”
Jesus’ life began dire, Hendricks highlights. His birth was humbling and abject. Jesus was born in a manger, the same place where animals ate and defecated. What has happened is that the birth of Christ has been decontextualized.
Folks forget that his parents had to uproot; that King Herod wanted to kill Jesus, that priests of the east were looking for the “King of the Jews;” their King, when Rome had already declared Herod with that title.
“All of this is very political,” Hendricks said. “If we taught a small piece of that, we could counteract some of this materialism.”
Christmas today has a relative lack of spirituality in Christmas. Few people, Hendricks said, know what Christmas represents. The infancy stories and birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke – while very different – show the expectation of Jesus doing some radical things in society.
“Christianity is missing the real radicalism of Christmas,” he said. “This whole notion of ‘silent night, holy night, all is come, all is bright’ is a miss depiction.”
For early Christians the focus was not the birth of Jesus, but Jesus’ death, Clark adds. The change came when the Christian community attempted to conform to Roman culture.