Nearly fifteen years after fleeing Sudan in a harrowing exodus of biblical proportions, a number of the Lost Boys made their way to America. A deeply moving documentary film, God Grew Tired Us, follows three of their stories in particular: John Bul Pai, who settled in Syracuse, New York, and two others, Daniel and Panther, who went to Pittsburgh.
Of all the memorable scenes, I’ll focus here on only one. Spending his first Christmas in America, only two months removed from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where he spent ten years, John Bul seeks to understand the role of Santa in the American celebration of the holiday.
Santa doesn’t make sense to John Bul on any level. Quite rightly, he asks what a kitschy photo op prop for sales in the shopping mall has to do with the birth of Christ. After all, there is no Santa in the Bible. John Bul contrasts the preoccupation with the bulbous, bearded caricature of our commercial imagination with the experience of Christmas Eve at Kakuma, where the whole camp pulsed with dancing expectation of the imminent birth of Christ in each person’s heart.
And they really did dance at Kakuma − in a joyous, vibrant way that broke down the separation between people, what some philosophers call the principium individuationis.
In America, our experience of Christmas is highly privatized. Even those who venture out for worship do so for little more (or even less) than an hour before returning to the exclusivity of their private presents and expected foods of feasting.
At Kakuma, by contrast, the shared experience seemed to be more than the sum of the individual parts. Surely we have much to learn from our African brothers and sisters in this regard. Wouldn’t it be something, this Christmas Eve, if we not only reenacted the ageless story of the birth in the stable, but also linked arms in a more systematic way than we’re used to doing? Yes, we’re dealing with H1N1, but still . . . .
A place to start might be by recalling that St. Nicholas of Myra, the primary inspiration for Santa Claus, was a 4th-century bishop in what is now Turkey who was known for his generous gifts to the poor. What are we doing, for our part, for the many people struggling in this tough economy?