Life + Culture

Dreaming of a White Christmas

All-white nativity scene
Look around you this Christmas: all the greeting cards, advertisements, TV specials, store displays, nativity scenes. Santa Claus’s race has gotten a lot of press in recent yearsbut it’s not just him.

The popular portrayals of Christmas in the United States reinforce the ‘white default’ that takes an assumed white perspective: from matters of marketing and consumerism, to social values and theology.

White faces depict the fatherly Joseph, the virginal Mary, the saintly angels, the hard-working shepherds. Are these characteristics only the traits of white people? When we link these faces with our holiday values of love, joy, and peace, we lose the full spectrum of God’s grace in the Christmas narrative. In the very story of our Lord’s birth we perpetuate the marginalization of God’s people.

We are selective with which ‘historical realities’ we cling to. The bible never claims there are three wise men, or that Jesus was born in December. Saint Nicholas never lived in the North Pole or probably even ever saw a reindeer. But we are willing to accept these particularities as part of our Christmas tradition. What does it say about our priorities when we insist on the whiteness of the savior?

Cartoon of Frosty the snowman
Frosty is the only character that
should consistently be white
The whitening of the baby Jesus is potentially the most damaging of all racialized Christmas portrayals (see post: The Color of Christ). Others have expounded on the historically inaccuracy of the portrayal, but it is problematic for the theologian as well as the anthropologist. White folk have literally changed the image of God into their own likeness. It means demeaning any other race as less God-like, less made in the image of God. It means identifying with the savior more than with the saved (see post: White Savior Complex).

With all the publicity and social construction, both Santa and Jesus are functionally white for many Christians in the United States. But there are serious consequences to the predominant perceptions of a white Jesus. Theologians have noted that "if we accept a White Jesus, if that is the image we see, we have also adopted an image of salvation, of health, wholeness, happiness, that also comes to us via a White culture and comes to us with a White value system." This imagery perpetuates the tenancy of white folk to view themselves as morally superior and as rightful leaders.

Korean nativity scene
Families recently visiting a black Santa at a Los Angeles mall remarked that "I just don’t want [my godson] to think that all greatness comes from a different race…There’s Santa Clauses his color doing good work, too." Furthermore, added another parent, "We need our kids to understand that good things happen in chocolate skin...We are often bombarded with the opposite. We’re not trying to exclude anybody, but [instead] celebrate our chocolate skin."

Representation matters. Children need to learn that good things (both Christmas presents, and salvation itself) can come from many different races and nationalities (see example nativities from Paul Neeley). We all need Black Santa. And we need Asian Santa, Native Santa and Latino Santa too.
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