On Christmas Day in 2011, my cousins were on their way to my parents’ home in Abuja, Nigeria when they were abruptly shoved off the road by a blinding blast. My aunt recalls an eerie feeling, akin to an out of body experience. From a distance it was clear that something very disturbing had transpired. They all stayed in the car and relied on the maddening crowd that had gathered for first-hand information. The church, a few blocks away from the one they were planning to attend that morning, had been bombed. As soon as the police had paved the way for waiting vehicles, my relatives drove past the heartbreaking scene. Bloodied victims flailing in despair, burning cars playing host to deceased occupants, and policemen trying in vain to calm a gang of angry youths dominated the scene.
Not too far away, my parents waited for my aunt, uncle, and three cousins to arrive. Once everyone was accounted for, they said a quick prayer in recognition of the tragic circumstances that had tainted the day. Then they headed into the church they had planned to attend and fell under the spell of a heated evangelical intervention. The cowards who were responsible for the Christmas Day massacre were no match for the songs and praises that erupted from the Big Church that Could.
As a kid growing up in Nigeria, Christmas took on a completely different meaning than what most Americans have chosen to adopt. Nigerian Christians revere Christ as a symbol of hope, love and peace, and our mission during the festive period is to celebrate how lucky we are to be saved, even though we don’t deserve it. I always looked forward to eating, drinking, and being merry with family members, especially the ones that I never got to see all year. We would all decorate the house, transforming the walls and hallways into a Technicolor wonderland.
But after living in the States for twenty years, sixteen of them in New York City, I have come to the realization that the holiday season here is just another opportunity to propel the economy. We are being used to fatten the pockets of major retailers who have been waiting all year to unleash damage on our bank accounts. The last time I truly enjoyed Christmas and celebrated in a way that was genuine was back in 2009 while visiting my homeland. Since then, I find myself caught in a web of endless campaign strategies, mind-crippling commercials, and a droning anthem that beckons us to spend every penny we are worth in order to justify our place at the dinner table.
It’s particularly hard to digest this superficiality when you consider that in Nigeria, people actually risk their lives in order to worship at churches situated in the Northern region. For the past four years, Christians have been under siege thanks to the brutality of the Boko Haram, a Muslim extremist group that has been hell-bent on unleashing unimaginable terror on innocent citizens who don’t accept Islam as their chosen religion. I had always been aware of the spreading violence, but it wasn’t until 2011, when things hit too close to home, that I became emotionally invested. That was the year that St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, a few kilometers from Abuja, the capital and also where my parents dwell, fell under the spell of a suicide bomber on Christmas day.
I wasn’t completely in the dark when it came to the violence against Christians residing in the Northern part of Nigeria, where Islam is predominately practiced. I just refused to commit myself to the streams of horror stories being posted on a weekly basis, because it was a reminder that my family was consistently in danger. The fact that my beloved childhood holiday was and still is under attack by a reckless sect is a tragic reality. And the notion that my parents and other steadfast believers still head to Church to celebrate Christmas, knowing full well that their actions might cost them their lives, is a testament to what that day really represents.
Unfortunately the holidays now signal impending doom back home. But I don’t want to succumb to panic attacks and a continuous disdain for how materialism is unabashedly embraced here in the States. Instead, I have created my American version of a happy holiday that features peace on earth (sending good vibes to my beloved countrymen) and good will towards men (attending events that encourage seasonal donations). The multi-colored price tags that litter shopping malls all over the country will never represent how I feel about this time of year, especially when so much is at stake for our counterparts in other corners of the world.