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Injecting Culture Into Christmas

One mom reflects on whether Christmas is whitewashed and speaks with families of color about how they respond

Published on: December 08, 2016

Christmas has had both religious and secular significance for quite some time. Since 1870, Christmas Day has been a federal holiday in the United States. Whether you’re "dreaming of a white Christmas" or singing along to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” the holiday cheer is impossible to ignore. And, sadly, Christmas cheer is not portrayed as inclusively as some would hope.

To some, "White Christmas" is not simply a hit holiday tune. It’s a reflection of the overall experiences. But Christmas is not a holiday owned by America, contrary to popular belief. And like many “American” traditions, images that challenge the status quo of whiteness are met with resistance.

As many people of color know, Santas of color can be hard to find. This is important to some families who want to expose their children to cultural characters and heroes who are representative, inclusive and/or historically accurate.

One of the greatest illustrations of the White resistance to a multicultural Christmas was that of Megyn Kelly, a news anchor for Fox News. During a live panel, Kelly said what many seem to think:

“For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is White. But this person is maybe just arguing that we should also have a Black Santa. But, you know, Santa is what he is, and just so you know, we’re just debating this because someone wrote about it, kids.”

As expected, Kelly’s responses resulted in a needed conversation. Why is the White version of Santa and many other Christmas figures only seen valid when White?

This month, after Mall of America hired its first Black Santa, the editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune said some reactions to Black Santa became so offensive the paper had to shut down their online comments on the article about it.

And let’s not get started of the image of Santa’s trusty side-kick “Black Pete”. A character who figures prominently in some countries, including the Netherlands, and whom many believe just gives people an excuse for dressing in blackface.

But why does it matter? Santa is just an urban legend to entertain children, for many. Why do so many have an issue with a character most regard as fictional being portrayed as non-White?

Does Christmas unknowingly promote feelings of marginalization for people of color? How does mixed families and families of color deal with the stereotype of a White Santa and Christmas? Do they feel any different? Is anyone even celebrating Christmas at all? I asked, and folks answered!

Photo: Stacia Trentham and family.

Stacia Trentham

What is your family’s racial/ethnic composition? 

Interracial Black American and White American.

Do you celebrate Christmas?

Yes, we do.

How old is/are your child(ren)?

They are 17 months and 2 years old.

What does Christmas mean to you?

Christmas to means a time of just giving rather it be goodwill or just a helping a hand or a physical gift at a time where you should put others first.

Have you ever felt marginalized by the image of Christmas? If so, how. Do you put an extra cultural spin on the holiday?

No, I haven’t, I think that might be from my upbringing. My mom taught us to always embrace all things different but still love yourself. I remember on Christmas we always had two sets of Santas. The Black Santa set and the White Santa set. And that was basically all things in my house.

My mom always taught us about our culture and the struggles of being Black. But she also taught us to embrace all things just because it doesn't look like you doesn't mean it's not for you or it can't be you.

Some have argued that Santa is White and should only be portrayed as such. What do you think?

I think he can be portrayed however you want. If you want him green from outside space who cares as long as you understand the meaning of Christmas and spread joy and good cheer that's what matters. But if you wanna get technical then Santa is not White he is based of Saint Nicholas, who is Turkish and they are a people of color ... So yeah, to Megyn Kelly, do your research before you start calling all things White.

Nikki S.*

What is your family’s racial/ethnic composition? 

Many different nationalities mainly Hispanic and Anglo.

Do you celebrate Christmas?

Yes we do celebrate, and we take part in others celebrations such as Hanukkah.

How old is/are your child(ren)?

L is 12 and Z is 3.

What does Christmas mean to you?

Christmas for me is to focus less on the Christianized celebration of Jesus’s birth and more on the magic and inherent goodness of the season. And not a specific religious dogma. Which is why we expose the kids to the secular like Santa Claus as well as other cultural celebrations and beliefs. And we do include our own church and beliefs in that, but it's not the sole focus.

Have you ever felt marginalized by the image of Christmas? I haven't felt marginalized by the image of Christmas until I lived in a certain area as an adult. But that was due to not being of the same religious  majority more than anything.

Do you put an extra cultural spin on the holiday?

As to cultural spin, my family celebrations always revolved around having great food, especially Mexican food. So I try to include those dishes I grew up with, and we explore the traditions that are linked to our various ethnicities.

We have, like most, had to build our own village and so we just make sure to include that village in our holiday in many ways. Because our village spans different ethnicities, religions and races, my kids are lucky to find family in Christmas in many ways and as a natural part of our holiday.

Some argue Santa is White and should only be portrayed as such. What do you think?

The Santa mythology has appeared in many different cultures across the world. No one has a lock on Santa. He goes by many names all over the world, with clothes and stories and probably faces to match.

Santa is supposed to be an ideal that UNITES people not something  to use to further cause divisions between people. Using an us versus them mentality.

*Preferred not to be pictured, last name withheld for privacy.

Geraleen Rivera Figueroa

Photo: Geraleen Rivera Figueroa and sons.

What is your family’s racial/ethnic composition?

We are Hispanic. More specifically Puerto Rican.

Do you celebrate Christmas?

If I celebrate Christmas to be honest I just celebrate the fact that I love the good vibes and happiness people tend to share around this time of the year.

How old is/are your child(ren)?

My kids are 4 years old and 11 months old.

What does Christmas mean to you?

For me, it means that time of the year we all prepare for all save up to be with each other and enjoy our company. We share everything we have to say and show to each how much we care. We spend time together.

Have you ever felt marginalized by the image of Christmas?

No. I make Christmas and anything else what I believe and want in life and share it with others.

Do you put an extra cultural spin on the holiday?

I do not put any spiritual spin on the holiday.

As for the author... 

As for me, I’ve learned to cope. There are many traditions that I do not feel were created with me in mind. So, I guess I feel no more marginalized than usual. This is my family's first Christmas with our son; we were still waiting for his arrival this time last year.

My husband and I have different traditions and are cultural “others” in many ways. But we plan to teach our boy, Salem, as much as we can about all the customs. We plan to raise him to believe there is room for everyone in our own way.

I believe an inclusive world view is the only way to be an educated individual.

I also believe we all find ways to modify Christmas and celebrate it how we see fit. 

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