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December 23, 2014
African Voice
Christmas Is Not For Sale
by Imo Eshiet

"He who gives money gives much; he who gives time gives more; but he who gives of himself gives all.”
—Thomas S. Monson

On the Christmas of my seventh year, my father gave me flannel pajamas. I do not know if he bought them ready-made or if he got the materials for mother to sew. (She was a skilled seamstress.) But I have cherished the memory of that gift. Every time I think back on it, I relive and relish the caressing feel of the pajamas and its warmth as I slept in it in the chilly month of December and the New Year.

There were always more than a dozen people at home, so buying enough presents to go round on a meager budget possibly took months of planning and saving by our parents. In the villages and semi-rural towns we lived in, folks improvised during festivals. They wove draping palm leaves into garlands, and arches and placed these at the gates to their homes.

It was a statement on love and it welcomed the birth of the baby Savior. The arches were festooned with wreathes and bouquets of flowers including bright hibiscus, flame of the forest and dainty lily as symbolic signatures for the festive season.

We did not have electricity to light up our homemade wreaths. Even though it was a good eight years after political independence in 1960, there was no development in the village.

In this setting, all that children expected from parents was just anything to show and tell the Christmas narrative of love, service and respect. We were poor, and since we had nothing to compare or compete with, we simply accepted whatever we got as gifts as the very best there was.

It took nothing away from our joy of the festivities. Like the Palestine the Savior walked, our roads were dusty, particularly towards the end of the year. The Lord’s earthly background was humble and so was our village. Any kid who got a T-shirt, cap, a gown, pants, shoes or slip-on, wore it with pride.

Joy radiated and shone like burnished brass on every face as year-long animosities were suspended and folks shared whatever they had with other folks.

Christmas was the occasion for folk to display their shared cultural heritage. Masking, dances, songs, mime, and concerts were staged at village arenas and everyone, young and old, participated.

Christmas was the ultimate festival. It was called Uchoro Awasi, meaning festival of the God. Harmony and communal wellbeing were the major themes in the songs, dances, and other performances.

Thus the entire community rather than money was the focus.

When our parents moved to the city, I was quick to notice that Christmas was just as important to the urban dwellers as it was to us in the rural areas.

However, more than getting people together, the power of money seemed overwhelming. Not to noisily show off the wealth one had made during the year was to invite social stigma, finger-pointing, and malicious gossip.

Also, since both parents worked away from home most of the time, people tried to impress their kids with expensive gifts in a futile attempt at making up for neglecting the family in pursuit of money.

Whatever fashion or gaudy lifestyle that was cranked up at the colonial capitals was giddily mimicked by us. Church meetings became occasion for expensive fashion parade and competition. People turned out like peacocks dressed to impress at a carnival.

Though I admired the uncommon display of elegant dresses and the prideful headgears, the women’s feet were another story. It was so painful seeing some ladies fall and hurt themselves from high heel shoes. Because some folk had not tried out their new shoes before turning out in them for the Christmas festivities, they took off the shoes and held them in their hands when the new shoes pinched their corns.

As I grew in years, I noticed that ceremonies originally intended to edify were now robbing many of their spiritual dignity. As I sat writing this, a TV commentator gleefully predicted that before this holiday season was over, people will have spent tens of billions of dollars.

Although that is certainly good for the economy, the glaring contrast between the humble birth of the Savior and the extravagance yearly mounted to commemorate his birth does nothing to ease a riling sense of travesty one feels.

I often wonder if in the midst of the fraught getting and lavish spending, affluent celebrants would recognize the Lord if he were to show up.

When a religious event becomes warped by enormous commercial interest to the point of losing its original significance, it is time people stopped to think of what is lost.

I do not want to risk sounding like a killjoy. But I do not see how the idolatry of money can square reasonably with the celebration of the birth of one whose only moment of physically lashing out was against those who profaned the hallowed spaces of the temple with trading.

Turning religious events into money-grubbing celebrations is a sad reminder of the confusion and darkness that led to the Lord’s rejection when he walked this earth. Many thought of him for what he was not. The false expectation they had of him blinded many minds to the great message he bore and light he beamed.

Today attempts to becloud that message with the power of money is a development true Christians cannot afford to surrender to without dire consequences.

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