The era of big bold Baptists, our tambourines and our Christmas movies — including, but not limited to “The Preacher’s Wife” (one of my favorites featuring Denzel Washington’s fine self) — is not over. With the passage of time, the way we study the life and teachings and how we memorialize the death of Jesus of Nazareth and celebrate Christmas look a lot less like papyrus, parchment and manna and more like Maverick City Music on YouTube. Gospel brunches (yes with a little booze) and progressive churches with full stage productions spread the good word.
The new-aged churches usually come with a pastor who gets a $75 haircut, maybe in Remington, and is flanked by a prop room full of plastic sheep, denim choir robes, and, if we’re lucky, a Black baby Jesus in a manger.
It’s been a few thousand years since Jesus rented his crib in Jerusalem, where I imagine he roamed the streets dapping up or shaking hands with his 12 apostles on his way to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Cana was a place full of signs and wonders, according to the Bible, and what was witnessed there were the kinds of miracles equivalent to finding a hip-hop night in a Fells Point bar on a Friday.
There are just some neighborhoods here in Baltimore where you’re not going to find as much cultural Blackness, Black people, or a depiction of Santa or Jesus as Black. Hampden is one of those neighborhoods. Its 400 acres includes The Avenue, the colorful stretch of shops, restaurants and bars in converted rowhouses along 36th Street. The 700 block of W. 34th Street is home to a Miracle on 34th Street display of holiday lights, now in its 73rd year.
Hampden is a neighborhood clearly all about tradition and preservation. But the attractions on The Avenue and the holiday displays reflect only part of its history. Considering that history, reaching well into the 1970s and 1980s, Black residents and visitors, as well as Asian American business owners, recall being targets of harassment and vandalism.
I’ve observed much more recently that restaurants serving a largely Black clientele find themselves under greater scrutiny than other establishments and more often the target of negative online reviews. I’ve seen immigrant-owned restaurants have the same sort of experience. I sense a theme about who is welcome in Hampden.
Hampden’s racial makeup hasn’t changed much in the neighborhood’s history. It is a predominantly white neighborhood in a majority Black city. As I consider the meaning of the holidays, I’m hoping for evolution that moves the neighborhood fully beyond its past and beyond attitudes and behavior that are still apparent. Maybe Hampden, like some Christians, can move on from a sordid past. It’s so much bigger than a culturally Black Christmas. I see this season as an occasion for encouraging growth.
Black folks experience holiday glee and events that abound throughout Baltimore. It’s a tradition for me, my family and my friends to spend time at cultural institutions, restaurants and even hotels around town celebrating Christmas. Toward the end of November, I created a Google document with a dozen holiday events.
I started making my way down my list Dec. 1 by attending the 51st Annual Monument Lighting. My friend Brandon Woody played at the lighting with his band Upendo, and then came appearances by Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby and Dawn Moore, the wife of Gov.-Elect Wes Moore. The Morgan State University Choir took the stage with performances of gospel songs.
The next night, I went to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Theater to see their adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” in which Ebenezer Scrooge has been portrayed by a Black actor for eight years, and even The Ghost of Christmas Past was played by a Black woman.
It’s been a lifelong aspiration for me to be a side-eyeing, butterscotch-candy-carrying, gossip-bearing, praise-in-the-storm-having church auntie. My first order of church auntiehood is to spread the gossip that Santa is Black just like I said he was, just not in Hampden — yet. Santa — as we know him in our modern-day Baltimore holiday celebrations, including the good old Monument Lighting always in the shape of a Christmas Tree — is based on Saint Nicholas, a Christian pastor and bishop. Saint Nicholas, unlike a Baltimore hairdresser when you don’t have money for their appointment deposit, was known for his generosity and kindness. Both characteristics gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy.
In years past, when looking for holiday to-do’s, I noticed that the holiday scene in Baltimore was not very Black in most places. Everything from ads for shopping in Harbor East to the Nativity scenes at churches in Baltimore included a very European Jesus. I’m not here to get anyone to admit that Jesus is Lord of all, per se, but to spread a Gospel that I’ve subscribed to for a long time now that Jesus is Black and Santa is, too. In my house, Santa is a jolly, fat Black man who bumps or plays Tupac on his sleigh while dropping off gifts down the hill.
When I hear the stories of Jesus or of Santa and their kindness, ingenuity, love for others, compassion and forgiveness, I think about Black folks. I think about my community and its leaders who spend the holiday season in Baltimore City doing coat, diaper, and food drives. When I’m faced with knowing that Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before his Crucifixion, where his mother was present at the foot of the cross, I think about Black mothers in Baltimore.
Yes, we pesky evangelical Christians still exist. We’re not sorry. Christians are not monolithic, just like I know all Hampden residents aren’t racist. As Christians, we don’t all have bird-brained theories about damning people to heck for their lifestyle choices, upholding traditions of misconduct and violence and blaming demons for mental health challenges. Some of us (I can speak for myself) are far from that or, thank God, evolving.
Alanah Nichole Davis, a writer and alumnus of Maryland Institute College of Art, works as a freelance communication and design consultant. She lives in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood with her family.