The celebration of Christmas has never been the same for Blacks and whites, has never been in harmony with the actual birth of Jesus, and was even used as a method to keep Blacks enslaved on Southern plantations.
Throughout history almost every agricultural community around the world engaged in some sort of festive celebration toward the end of each year. Some, as in Europe, were related to the winter solstice, but most were related to the period of leisure and abundance following the harvesting of crops around late December and were intended to thank the Creator for bestowing the abundant bounty before winter set in.
During Europe’s Middle Ages rulers, trying to instill Christian principles into the peasantry, attempted to infuse a religious component -- the birth of Christ -- into their well-established and debaucherous winter solstice celebrations. This, they hoped, would aid in the transition they envisioned for Europeans from paganism to Christianity, even though they were well aware of the fact that Jesus was born more than three months earlier in the year. They also knew that Nimrod, the wicked one who lived to undermine the civilization of Moses, was born on December 25th. The wise could secretly maintain their worship of him while the masses observed the "birth" of Jesus. This scheme, hatched by Europe’s clergy, inspired the gluttonous celebrations we now call Christmas (Read the Messenger’s teachings of Christmas in chapter 33 [pp. 173-81] of His book, Our Saviour Has Arrived).
SAINT NICHOLAS, THE RACIST
A twisted image of the Black Man entered into the celebration of Christmas within this European folklore. Saint Nicholas’s function in the church was to render judgement as to the goodness or evil in the children in his domain. He would visit children and quiz them on church lessons, rewarding them with candy, gifts, or chastising them with sticks or pieces of coal. According to their racist depiction, the saint was accompanied by a servant named “Black Pete,” a “hairy, chained, horned, blackened, devilish monster....clutching a gaping sack in his hairy claws.” Black Pete’s job was to glare at the children while the saint drilled the youths in Christian verse. Every now and then "Black Pete" “flashed his enormous canines and leaped, growling, toward the frightened children, threatening to beat them with his rod.” Nicholas warned the bad children that this “Black Pete” would stuff transgressors into his sack only to be released at the next Christmas.
Local European traditions shaped Saint Nicholas from this fear-inspiring overlord to a magnanimous bearer of gifts. But the practice of giving gifts in the name of Saint Nicholas was frowned upon by cleric Martin Luther who then introduced Christkindlein -- a messenger of Christ -- as the gift-bringer. Again, through mispronunciation, Christkindlein came to be known as Kris Kringle.
Though “Black Pete” didn’t make the trans-Atlantic crossing to the “New World” with our African forbears, his boss Saint Nicholas and Kris Kringle did. It is commonly believed that Santa Claus reached America in Dutch form, a less daunting figure laden with gifts for the good. But other Christmas practices and pagan customs did make the voyage with the Europeans. Colonial Massachusetts Puritan Cotton Mather put it this way in 1712: “[T]he Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty...by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling...”
Often people blackened their faces or disguised themselves as animals or cross-dressed, presumably to maintain anonymity for much ruder acts. Similar accounts of the early Christmases abound. Reverend Henry Bourne decried the transvestitism, the “Uncleanness and Debauchery,” as well as rampant unlawful fornication or “chambering.” Indeed, there was a marked increase in the number of births in the months of September and October -- meaning that sexual activity peaked during the Christmas season. Ultimately, the Puritans of early Massachusetts actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas in their settlement in 1659 and fined those who skipped work or celebrated in any way 5 shillings. They also outlawed the days Thursday and Saturday (the names, that is), because of their pagan origins: Thursday meaning “Thors” day, and Saturday, “Saturn’s day.” The Christmas holiday was reinstated in 1681 but not before it was roundly condemned as blasphemous and far-removed from the way of Jesus.
CHRISTMAS AND PLANTATION SLAVERY
In many places throughout the South they created their own distinctive traditions known by various related names including John Canoeing, John Kunering, Koonering, or other related terms. The festivities included singing, socializing, dancing, feasting, and dressing up in the white man’s cast-off clothes. The permission granted Blacks for this annual merrymaking had more devious designs, according to former slaves Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Fearful of insurrection and discontent, the planters often forced the slaves to drink heavily during Christmas in maintenance of a drunken stupor. Recalled Douglass, “not to be drunk during the holidays was disgraceful.” Said one Georgia observer: “It would make a northern abolitionist change his sentiments in reference to slavery could he see as I have seen the jollity & mirth of the black population during the Christmas holidays. Never have I seen any class of people who appeared to enjoy more than do these negroes....” This also fit in well with the practice of "Christianizing" the Africans which in reality had nothing to do with the empowering truth of Jesus, and everything to do with preparing the free African mind to accept lifelong bondage.
The expectation of gifts or rewards on Christmas led to a crisis after the Civil War when it was believed that the 40 acres and a mule would be distributed among the “x-slaves” on Christmas Day. Gen. O.O. Howard (for whom Howard University is named) mounted an effort to dispel this notion among the Blacks of the South lest the ruse might trigger mass revolt. His officers of the Freedman’s Bureau ordered Blacks not to expect anything on Christmas and to instead make a work contract with their former masters. Nothing was to change on that Christmas or any other.
Just as the early Christian leaders bargained with the truth of the birth of Christ, the burgeoning merchant class in America positioned themselves to make Christmas a bonanza of mass marketing, consumption and boundless profits and to make Santa Claus the department store spokesperson for unrestrained consumerism. Between 1880 and 1920, advertisers began to encourage the purchase of manufactured gifts instead of home-made gifts. Wrapping paper and Christmas cards were introduced and the ritual of removing price tags became customary. Christmas bonuses “Christmas Club” bank accounts all promoted the holiday as the season of boundless spending. As Mr. Muhammad wrote: “The merchants’ pockets are made fat for Christmas -- the tobacco factories, the beer and whisky traffic, and wine….There is no holy worship on that day for [Jesus].”
Black people never truly accepted the contrived infusion of a "Christian" element in this crass celebration of mass consumption and historical evil. Their Jesus has been removed entirely and His gifts to humanity have been bargained away and replaced by the red-suited, obese deity of all that is holy in white America.
© By Tingba Apidta, author of The Hidden History of Massachusetts: A Guide for Black Folks; A publication of The Reclamation Project, New Revised and expanded edition, 2003; ISBN 0-9714462-0-2. For sales info e-mail Lushena Books, firstname.lastname@example.org