Does Christmas, hollowed out of its spiritual aspect, have any relevance any more? Perhaps it is time to return to the more substantial native beliefs that were flattened by a Christianising colonisation. Writes Kalundi Serumaga.
The dominance of secular activities – shopping for gifts, feasting and drinking – over the religious roots of the Christmas season is a fitting symbol for the one religion that has done more than any to shape the world as it currently is: increasingly devoid of spiritual ballast.
Whole continents owe their countries, official languages, official symbols and even judicial systems to the energies of first the Roman Catholic Church, from the time of Pope Alexander VI, to the Christianity spread by the British, Spanish, French and Dutch empires.
One feature that is often remarked on by visitors from Africa and the Caribbean to the UK is the contrast between the full drinking pubs on a Saturday, and the empty, magnificent old churches on a Sunday. Europe, it would seem, is no longer a Christian continent. It simply holds a legacy of Christianity. It is an interesting fact about Christianity that it did not establish a single state in its name throughout the region in which it was founded. This is quite unlike Islam which, though coming much later, had a much more visible cultural and political impact on the region, to the point of creating a succession of Islamic states and kingdoms there.
One has to look much further north and north-west of the Middle East in order to begin finding the historical trace of Christian states, starting of course with the conversion of the Roman Empire.
The story of African spiritual resistance to this European-state-backed Christianity is a long and continuing one.
Having become the dominant faith in Western Europe (and Russia), it became a key tool in their imperial conquests.
“A hundred years ago, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, challenged a generation of public schoolboys to offer themselves as ‘missionaries in the imperial work of the Church of England’”, wrote the Reverend Giles Fraser in the UK Guardian of 13 October 2003.
“His friend, Henry Montgomery, sent out to be bishop of Tasmania, insisted ‘the clergy are offi cers in an imperial army’. This Christian army of missionaries spread the theology of the CofE [Church of England – Ed] throughout the world.”
The resistance to this clerical imperial army took the form of native spiritual and religious movements, organising themselves for armed insurrections.
The Nyabinghi resistance, from 1908-28 and still celebrated by the Rastafarian faith, was led by Muhumusa, who organised revolts against first German and later British invaders of the Great Lakes Region.
It was against her that the colonial anti-witchcraft law, not repealed until just before independence, was imposed on the British colony of Uganda. Muhumusa herself, a queen mother exiled from the royal Court of Rwanda by a German-backed usurper, was deemed the medium for the ancestor queen called
Europe, it would seem, is no longer a Christian continent. It simply holds a Christian legacy.
Kaitimi, who continued to speak through mediums known collectively as Nyabinghi. This is a little like the avatar concept of Hinduism, where deities may place themselves on the earthly realm in the form of other identities (from which computer gaming software has taken the word).
Further south, in what is now Zimbabwe, one Nehanda Nyakasikana led an almost identically organised revolt. She was simply deemed the most recent of the mediums to host the spirit of, in her case, Nyatsimba Mtota – the founder of the Monumutapa Empire, which was first hosted by Mutota’s daughter Nehanda centuries earlier.
But all these are examples of later resistance to the state backed form of Christianity. The resistance actually begins with the centuries-long suppression of native religion in Europe. Once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its centralising ideology, a long-drawnout campaign against ‘paganism’ rolled across the European mainland in the subsequent centuries.
It was not merely violent, although a great deal of violence was involved. Much of it involved the cultural appropriation of numerous pagan customs, re-inventing them as Christian habits.
The roots of Christmas lie in the Mediterranean pagan festivals. In the Roman form, it was called Saturnalia, during which their god Saturn was honoured with a festival from 17 to 23 December
Christianising pagan rituals
Christmas is the best example. Its roots lie in the Mediterranean pagan festivals. In the Roman form, it was called Saturnalia, during which their god Saturn was honoured with a festival of partying, sacrifices, gift-giving and prayer running from 17 to 23 December.
The irony is that in original Christianity, the logically most important occasion is supposed to be Easter, the time when Christ proves his ultimate prophecy by rising from his death and returns to Paradise.
This was shifted in Western Europe to coincide more with the festivals of fertility and nature’s rebirth that come in spring, when the wintered earth seems to come back to life.
Rituals of rebirth and mating – often symbolised by eggs – can be found in ‘pagan’ spiritual practices reaching far back through Europe and into even ancient Africa, from where Europe derives the basics of her original cultures.
Women were the last hold-out and the central organisers of the African resistance. This generated a vast array of cultural propaganda – as well as laws – against ‘African witches’ casting evils spells which permeates European cultural folklore to this day.
The terms used to describe ‘witches’ are misogynistic, revealing deeply held anxieties around the concept of women being in charge of the spirit – which is the norm in African and Native American religions.
Christmas itself has been hollowed out of its meaning among its founding countries – and returning its constituent parts to the religions they were taken from.
We see this mentality even in the persecution of the French, nominally Catholic spirit medium, Joan of Arc, and the origins of European and later American ‘witch-hunting’.
Christmas is projected as the period of ‘peace and goodwill towards all’. In today’s world, this is very desperately needed. But perhaps the starting point will have to be removing the pre-eminence of Christmas itself – which has been hollowed out of its meaning among its founding countries – and returning its constituent parts to the religions they were taken from.