American culture has brought some great things to Britain – from Bob Dylan and the Blues to The West Wing and O Brother Where Art Thou. Of course there is the trash and the worst excesses of a dumbed down consumerist culture – witness Britney, string cheese and the 'Jesus wants me for a millionaire' tele-evangelists! This past week in the UK we have experienced both sides.
First the good. The one American festival I really envy is Thanksgiving. A time to eat turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes; a time to meet with family and take a couple of days off work; a time above all to give thanks to God for the harvest and for his mercies throughout the year. Dating from 1621 it is a wonderful reminder of America's Christian heritage. Its simplicity and family orientation reveals the best of American culture.
And then, after Thanksgiving Thursday, comes Black Friday to bring us all back into the cesspit. This came about because families traditionally began their Christmas shopping on this day, and retailers started offering big discounts to encourage them to do so (think Boxing Day in the UK). It was called Black Friday by the police in Philadelphia, after a particularly crowded year (1966), in order to discourage people from all coming out at once. It didn't work – but the name stuck. And so after a day of thanksgiving America reverts to an orgy of ugly consumerist greed. Every year you can see YouTube videos of punch ups in stores. This year's most sickening is of a Wal-Mart store in North Carolina.
One in six Britons apparently celebrated Thanksgiving this year. This has to do with the large ex-pat community (200,000 Americans in the UK), the availability of American food and, I would hope, a desire to be thankful – at least among Christians. My own church wanted until last Sunday to have our harvest thanksgiving service. This is one American custom I would encourage us to adopt.
But sadly even more Britons have bought into Black Friday – not even bothering with the Thanksgiving before heading for the bargains. This, like that other barbarous American import, commercialised Halloween, is a recent import to these shores. It was not until 2010 that Amazon first introduced their Black Friday sale. By 2013 they were selling 4 million items on that one day alone. Other retailers have followed and so this year we have ended up with the disgusting spectacle of people fighting in shops over half price TVs. It is embarrassing that my own city of Dundee saw a Tesco store being closed because of the crowds and the fighting.
Even the Church has not been immune to Black Friday. While Baptists are not exactly punching Anglicans in CLC over half price Bibles, my inbox has been inundated with offers of cheap books, Bibles, music and DVDs. Really folks? Really? Corporate, consumerist Christianity – is this what Jesus died to create? It may fit the world of the mega church complete with 3,000-seat arena and McDonalds in the foyer, but is it really what the Christian church is about?
Which brings us on to Christmas. This year Christmas began in August. I was horrified to go into a local supermarket and hear all the traditional secular Christmas songs already being played. Dundee's Christmas lights were switched on a week earlier. Sadly they have failed to dispel the November gloom – indeed they have only added to it. Not that I am exactly the keenest shopper anyway, but it is now a matter of principle to stay away from the city centre during the four weeks before Christmas.
And yet I am growing to love Christmas itself more than ever. The carols on Classic FM, the family aspect, and above all the opportunity to mediate and be thankful for the greatest gift of all, the Son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus the Christ. And I am really wishing for a white Christmas. Not so much the kind celebrated on many Christmas cards but rather the one mentioned in Isaiah 1:18 "though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as wool". I am looking for renewal, forgiveness, purity, wholeness and health of body, soul and mind. All of that ultimately only comes through that baby in the manger.
When that is on offer, a new TV, iPhone or even bottle of Malt, pales into insignificance! Give me a White Christmas over Black Friday any day! Please, please, please, can we be really counter cultural this Christmas and make it all about Jesus?....let's reject the baubles and go for the blessing.
David Robertson is Moderator Designate of the Free Church of Scotland and Director of Solas CPC.