Belfast Telegraph

Black Santa, not Black Friday, true essence of season

By Gail Walker

I don't know where it came from, I'm not sure when it arrived, it seems to stay longer than its name suggests and it certainly is nowhere near as lucrative for us as the hype pretends.

Of course, it's "Black Friday" - or Black Weekend, Black Everyday, even Black Week in some cases - meshing perfectly with Cyber Monday.

It turns out it has been a feature of life in the US for decades - the day after Thanksgiving offering an opportunity to get into shops earlier than usual.

Be that as it may, it is a very recent addition to what we are pleased to consider our "festive season". In case you thought of slipping quietly into Christmas, avoiding the hassle for as long as possible, along comes this marketing tool to assault your senses a month before Christmas Day itself.

Regardless of religious belief, does anyone think we are handling "Christmas" the right way? We've even stopped going through the motions of sounding like our parents - "it gets earlier every year", "it's all about greed", "it's cynical and manipulative", "you hardly get Halloween over and the tinsel is in the shops". We lost that argument decades ago.

Now, while the formal religious character of the period has almost vanished, it has been replaced by a massive demand that we "all spend money" as a means to "kickstart the economy", "build a feelgood factor", indeed, even "save jobs".

There's a kind of moral imperative on us to spend as much as possible in order to be good citizens and store up brownie points in superstore heaven.

Show reluctance and you're likely to be a social pariah - as if NOT engaging in grim-faced morale-sapping retail for weeks on end is akin to being like The Child Snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

As popular culture - Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, Jekyll & Hyde, even Frankenstein - is aimed at infantilised adults, it is even more true that our current image of Christmas is childish also. And not for the benefit of children, by the way, but for us as acquisitive adults.

Parties, drinks, dinners, outings, functions... all with the word "Christmas" in front of them and all targeted at adults.

Marketeers don't even bother to conceal the cynicism now. The big chains compete annually to release ever more product-driven adverts - mini-movies of fairies, cartoons, glistening-eyed children and happy, happy homes with parents buying "things" and eating them; the supercharities compete to release ever more embarrassingly-craven and grasping adverts targeting our guilt at being Western, white and, all but the very poorest of us, wealthier than Roman emperors.

Whatever else this thing called Christmas is about, it isn't respect or care for one's fellow creatures on Earth.

Never mind the simple tale of Bethlehem. Look at the simple tale of A Christmas Carol, which Dickens crafted as a means of directing his society towards some basic human truths. We all like to think we're Bob Cratchit, working our fingers to the bone in a dead-end job for ungrateful bosses, happy with the simple things in life. Yeah, sure.

The reality is we are all Ebenezer Scrooge. Full of opinion, turkey, booze, ourselves and... er, well, let's leave it at that. We pay our taxes, give a bit to charity when we can't get out of it, resent beggars at cashpoints, stick to our tight little sectarian circles, are glad there is social security for "the poor", and Christian types who pick up those who fall through the nets, but would rather not have all that shoved in our faces at Christmas, thank you very much.

Mind you, there's nothing unnatural about those attitudes - few of us here are far from hardship in our family histories.

No one is going to argue that a booming economy and a thriving retail sector don't benefit everyone in the long run, putting cash into the system, boosting confidence, taking a little more of the risk out of credit.

But it is still true that we need to grow up. The social services, no matter how effective, do not absolve us of our personal responsibility to "give to the poor" - especially the undeserving poor.

The peace process does not mean we can just slump back in to the nasty attitudes of our respective tribes because other people are taking the brave steps outwards.

No doubt, like other US imports like pumpkins and "Happy Holidays", Black Friday's here to stay. But we do have our own "black" tradition which is a reminder of the simpler truisms of the season - and it's not the Preceptory.

Dean John Mann will be taking up his post as Black Santa on the steps of St Anne's from Wednesday, December 15.

If ever there was a stark reminder of the principal purpose of the festival, it's his solitary vigil at "The only time when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

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Follow me on Twitter @GWalker9

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