“A lot of what you see is assimilation to Roman culture – as well as other European pre-Christian traditions such as winter solstice. Now the Christian message has become a message of upward mobility. The advent season used to be observed by practices of self-denial, waiting for Jesus, sacrifice; now we go from black Friday to cyber Monday. We do not mark it by advent anymore. We do not mark it by rituals of fasting like Christians did years before.”
America is only nominally Christian, said Clark. He considers the real religion in America to be consumerism and adds that Jesus is even marginalized in his own story.
“Ask most people what is the image of Christmas, they would say Santa Claus and snow men. Jesus is perfunctory.”
Dianne Diakite, associate professor of Religion & African American Studies at Emory University believes there has been an increase in commercialization.
“Everyone knows the true meaning of Christmas. Everyone knows what it is and everyone knows we are not doing it,” she said, adding that it is shocking and appalling that African Americans have not realized the increase.
She refers to an incident maybe three years ago as a clear indicator of the problem.
“There was some popular doll – I think it was a doll – on the market which everyone wanted that year. People lined up – I think at a WalMart in New York – to have the first chance at purchasing the doll before supplies were depleted.”
She remembers as the doors were opened on this day – maybe a Black Friday the night after Thanksgiving that year a man working there, of Ethiopian or Somalian identity, was stampeded and crushed to death.
“It epitomized the grotesque, unethical and capitalistic underpinnings of the Christmas season in the 21st century. It was appalling to me and I believe a lot of those people among the crowd of consumers responsible for that young man’s death were black people given what I remember about the case as it was reported and covered on the news back then.”
Devastated by the situation, she personally decided to not give any gifts that Christmas.
Consumerism is an addiction, or that is at least how Diakite sees it, paralleling the issue of African-American consumerism to the exchange of human bodies for manufactured items during the transatlantic slave trade.
She asks how we have become so commodity driven especially since our ancestors’ bodies were bought and sold on the market as commodities for so many centuries.
“The pressures of Christmas seduce people into making purchases they do not want or need. Even beyond the Christmas season, too many African Americans fall prey to a culture of ‘therapeutic’ or ‘escapist’ shopping—they feel bad about themselves, and they have to go buy stuff.”
There needs to be a critique of consumer culture. And for Clark, it is important to differentiate between the kind of consumerism that benefits the economic health of our country and obsessive, hyper-consumerism.
“All forms of gift giving are not necessarily dangerous. What is happening now is the triumphalism over the Christmas story by consumerism. The story has been hijacked,” he said. “If you look at the history of Christmas, the early Christian community did not celebrate Christmas.
Hendricks calls the church to task. He believes the fight starts with the church materialism in general.
“It is an education in re-orientation about the meaning of Christmas. It has to be like a movement and crusade with long-term perspective to raise the consciousness in the church. And at the same time, fight against the consumer mentality.”
However, Hendricks is not completely confident in this reality. He believes the vehicles to make such a transformation possible are not available. He states that most Christians become Christians because they are born into it. Nothing in particular has to be done. And those that join churches do so either for entertainment or to feel better; not to change the world.
“So, I do not see the church as a solution to the problem. Christianity is too invested in the baby Jesus, away in the manger, silent night, holy night, all is come, all is bright. They are really invested in that understanding of Jesus. So it is much easier for them. They are not looking to change that.”
Follow Mashaun D. Simon on Twitter at @memadosi