The Spirit of Christmas

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Another Christmas Day has dawned. Sadly, as an adult, I too often look forward to Christmas Day because it marks an end to the screaming advertisements and narratives that seek to create dis-ease and anxiety about not having or not having enough or not having the latest or not having better. Far from being a season of peace, Christmas in the United States is a time of unrest complete with a shopping period dedicated to the running of the shopping bulls, a stampede of shoppers in search of the latest, greatest, and cheapest. It leaves so much debris. It fosters unhealthy competition for fool’s gold. Instead of counting one’s blessings, one is encouraged and commanded to reflect on what one lacks and on the deficits or perceived deficits of one’s life. The babe in the manger has come not to bring wholeness and peace but to bring one more materials that demand replacing the old storage buildings with new ones that will contain all the new materials and riches one has rightly acquired and to which one is so richly entitled. If one reflects on the other at all, it is merely as a path to acquiring more for one’s self. One is nice only for the sake of individual gain.

Yes, by the time Christmas Day has dawned, I am quite ready for the noise of gaining and having and possessing to be over. I am ready for the anxiety that comes with not enoughness and not good enoughness to cease. I am ready to know the peace that comes with counting one’s blessings. These blessings are often less tangible and less material than a new computer or tablet, another diamond, a new car, or any such as that. These blessings are often the relationships one has and the communities of which one is a part.

As a child and a teen, Christmas was a holiday about which I had mixed emotions. To be sure, I often had a wish for some item. This was not always the case. However, when I did have a wish, I waited with some anxiety to see if my wish would be fulfilled. My family did not usually have much money and I somehow understood that it was important to keep my wishes small enough to be fit within the realm of the possible. One year in particular stands out in my mind. I was 8 or 9 years of age and wanted a drum for Christmas. It seems to me that I wasn’t particularly picky about the matter. Any drum would do even if in my heart, a small set was my ultimate desire. That year, a neighbor, who was often kind to our family made my wish for a drum a reality. I was so excited to see the small red drum emerge from beneath its wrappings. And I was content not just for the moment or for the day, but for many months until one of my “experiments” wrecked my drum. I was always experimenting and seeking to discover. I still have that love of learning and discovery. It is an asset in my work both spiritual and academic.

Yes, I had and have mixed emotions about Christmas. I experience the true meaning of Christmas, not in the acquisition of things, but in the sharing of lives. As a child, what I valued most about Christmas was the relationships explored and developed on Christmas Day as we visited with family and friends. At Christmas, we invoked the spirit of the ancestors in the stories we shared and in the breaking of the bread. The Christmas Days that were best were the Christmas Days when we became larger than our individual selves, larger than our immediate temporal families. Yes, the best Christmas Days were when we transcended the present and entered into the eternal legacy not merely looking back, but looking back to move ahead. They were Sankofa moments.

Last year, my wife Deborah and I celebrated Christmas in Kampala, Uganda. Uganda bears the scars of colonialism and its path forward is still challenged by the debris of colonialism and its incessant mantra of gain. Yet, what I recall about Christmas in Uganda was not screaming advertisements, but people preparing to gather together with family to invoke the spirit of the ancestors. It was a time to remember, to share stories, to share food, and to be reminded of the strength that flows from communal relationships. Sure, Ugandans exchange material gifts, but that hardly seemed the point. The food was simple and delicious. I can’t say that there was an abundance, but that wasn’t the point. The point of the hospitality was not to show off or to compete. The point was to come, to sit, and to share. The being together was edifying. Indeed, the being together was the gift and an enduring one at that.

My impression of Ugandans at Christmas were of a people who cherished the gift of community and kinship. For Ugandans, Christmas visitation, like any visitation, takes time. One lingers and savors. This way of visitation is manifested even in the ordinariness of life. I remember asking an Ugandan elder for directions one day. For us in the United States, this is not a moment of visitation filled with greetings and sharing. It is a very simple material exchange. (Of course, this was not how I was reared, but it unfortunately seems a way I’ve learned as I navigate a hyper-material world.) In this case, the material was to be information. The Ugandan elder gently called me to a place of peace. He changed the dynamic of our encounter simply by saying “Hello” and asking “How are you today?” He created a state of relationship and communion. Out of that communion, he shared a story, which was the giving of directions. In such interactions, I experienced the meaning of Christmas – be still, be nourished, be in peace.

The dusk of another Christmas is upon us. Yet, Christmas is always coming. Christmas is not about striving for the more. Christmas is not about right religion. Christmas is about living life wholly. It is the way of Sankofa. As people of African descent, ours is a rich legacy that is able to bring wholeness and peace, which is the message of Christmas. I am thankful to that Ugandan elder and to all of the Ugandans who by their lives helped me to embrace the knowledge from my past in my present for the living of my future. I look forward to another time of basking in the spirit of Christmas with Ugandans who live in the ways of wholeness and life-giving as articulated by the ancestors.

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