We all can agree that Christmas is said to be, “The most wonderful time of the year.” Everyone is more cheerful than usual, regardless if they celebrate the holiday for religious or traditional reasons, or don’t partake in the holiday at all. Some just enjoy the marked down merchandise and extra off days from work. For many African Americans, the subject of Christmas is a more layered topic than we would like to admit.
Christmas During Slavery
Christmas was a layered subject even during slavery for many reasons. For some slaves, Christmas was a time of hope. In The Autobiography of a Female Slave by Martha Griffith Browne, Ann can be quoted saying “This same Jesus, whom the civilized world now worship as their Lord, was once lowly, outcast, and despised; born of the most hated people of the world…laid in the manger of a stable at Bethlehem… this Jesus is worshipped now.” The story of Jesus’ birth shows the optimism that many had and used to be inspired for better days. Ann also mentioned the added tasks placed on enslaved Black people for all the holiday preparations on the plantation, which many other slaves told stories of working nonstop during the holiday season, cooking and cleaning for the big day.
Hope was also given through the relaxed supervision with many taking the opportunity to run away, most notably Harriet Tubman coming back for her brothers during the Christmas holiday. Also mentioned in The Autobiography of a Female Slave, Henry saved his “Christmas money” to buy his freedom. Some enslaved Africans were able to save their holiday gifts of larger and better food portions, money, new clothing and shoes for themselves throughout the year or to trade with others along the road to freedom.
“Make new and more personal family traditions where gifts aren’t the focus but memories and experience are.”
Teases of humanity were also thrown to those in bondage by allowing them time off to relax, spend time with family or friends, and even have a “real” marriage. But this short-lived happiness could and sometimes was used as a blow softener to those who would soon feel the pain of losing their loved ones, who would soon be gifted to their owner’s family member on Christmas day. Also, note the continued playing of the burning yule log seen on television can be traced back to slavery; some masters would allow slaves to pick a yule log to burn in the main house saying they would be able to rest as long as it burned (allegedly some logs burned until New Year’s day).
Our ancestors celebrated and even recognize the influence of religion, which has shaped much of how and what many of us do today during the holiday season. I have been put off by the holidays more and more as I have aged. No, it’s not from my deeper dive into our history or religion; but the ugly beast of holiday consumerism.
Consumerism drives our economy forward, but at what cost? Soon after back to school sales are wrapped up stores slowly begin to stock the shelves for Christmas. Then the social media “countdown to Christmas” posts begin to circulate reminding us of how many weekends are left, “Did you start shopping yet?” or “How much do you spend during the holiday?” As the conversations begin, I think of the British mother who went viral in 2015 for buying her three children 300 presents and spending a little over $750/per child.
Quickly, my mind switches to the fact that African Americans are only 14% of the U.S population but hold $1.3 trillion in buying power according to Nielson’s Report. The national spending amount for the holiday season in 2018 was between $717.45 billion to $720.89 billion, per the National Retail Federation. How much of that came from Black dollars? And with the median wealth of African Americans on pace to hit zero by 2053, I have to ask are our spending habits setting us up to fail?
No matter if you celebrate Christmas because of traditions or religious sake, I ask that we be mindful of what we are doing regarding our family and be mindful of the traditions we are passing down to our children.
Below are a few things to try this year versus the usual holiday spending madness:
- Examine your thoughts about the holiday and what it means to you.
- Examine your thoughts and habits about your finances.
- Adopt the something you want, wear, read, and need method to gift selection for your children. The idea is that you only give four gifts to each child: Something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. This allows you to bring your kids into the decision-making process.
- Instead of using an Advent calendar for receiving, make one for giving to others.
- Most importantly, if you are going to spend money circulate those dollars with Black-owned businesses
- Make new and more personal family traditions where gifts aren’t the focus but memories and experience are.