Christmas in Black and White


The historical St Nick and the historical Jesus were real people, born in real places, in real cultures. They were not northern Europeans.

With so much bad news, especially constant stories about division, it was encouraging to read the story of the Kennedy family of North Little Rock, Arkansas. After Chris Kennedy, the father, put up a black Santa in his front yard, they received a hateful anonymous letter. He posted a video about the racist missive on Facebook.

The Washington Post reported: “I just got something in the mail that is one, incredibly offensive, and two, just says where we are,” Kennedy said at the start of the video.

“I am trying to be as nice as I can in this very moment because I am actually filled with rage,” he said. “It’s very disheartening because it’s holiday time; we’re in a pandemic.”

“I’ve literally put this Black Santa up for the last three years,” Kennedy continued, reinforcing that it has never been a problem in the past.

Kennedy’s wife, Iddy Kennedy, 31, was also deeply disturbed by the letter.

“I was genuinely hurt,” she said. “When we originally received it, I wondered if we had made the right choice; if this was the right environment to raise our daughter.”

But that’s when everything changed. The Kennedy’s neighbors were horrified. So, what did they do? They put up Black Santas, too. Lots of them!

For the whole story:

NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt @NBCNightlyNews

After Chris Kennedy received a racist letter objecting to his Black Santa Christmas decoration, his neighbors in Arkansas started putting up their own Black Santa decorations as a show of support. @rehemaellis has the story.

“It was unsolicited, it was undeserved, it was un-Christmas, and hopefully it was not reflective of Lakewood, and certainly not reflective of the kind of country I want to live in,” said 70-year old neighbor Chip Welch. “We were all pretty concerned about it, and we decided it would be poetic for everyone to get Black Santas.”

“My real neighbors have been simply amazing and I’m very happy that we moved to our neighborhood,” Kennedy said. “They have shown that we are truly better together than we are apart.”

I actually teared up a little when I saw the story on NBC News. Because, of course, I don’t want to live in a country where a family can’t put up a Black Santa without a hateful bigot sending a threatening letter. And I do want to live in a country where neighbors stand in solidarity with each other.

But it also reminded me of a similar story from 2013 — when Megyn Kelly, then of FOX News, caused an uproar when she claimed both Santa and Jesus were white.

Critics pushed back on Kelly, pointing out that both St. Nicholas, the real person behind the Santa myth, and the historical Jesus were both born in the eastern part of the ancient Mediterranean world, in what we know as Turkey and Israel respectively, and were therefore brown-skinned Middle Easterners. Historically, Black Santa is closer to the mark than a Nordic-looking Santa hailing from the North Pole. That is also true for black Jesus. European-descendent Americans forget this. And we forget that our blue-eyed, blond-haired ancestors once changed both Santa and Jesus and adapted these Middle Eastern stories into European cultures.

Holidays are rich in story — and stories of Santa and Jesus involve two elements: history and the act of reflecting on and enacting history that we call “tradition.” The historical Nicholas and the historical Jesus were real people, born in real places, in real cultures. They were not Europeans, they spoke languages that are no longer spoken, and lived lives unimaginably distant from our own. Yet, Nicholas’s story morphed into a legend of a saint, and then, eventually, to become the secular character of the customs and traditions we know today.

And Jesus? His story, of course, was told and retold, and became the basis of the world’s largest religion — one made up of tens of thousands of denominations, myriad and diverse practices and customs reflecting cultures in every corner of the globe. When it comes to Christmas, there’s the history — whether of a Jewish baby born under Roman imperial oppression or a generous bishop who cared about sex workers — and then there are the traditions that generations assigned and attached to their heroes over time.

The job of historians is to recover, reconstruct, and approximate who a person was, what they said or taught, how they lived, what they contributed, and how they still influence the human story. To be a historian, one goes to graduate school and learns how to do this, how to work and think historically.

But what of tradition? That’s a different thing. We don’t have “traditionians” as an academic speciality! Indeed, tradition is something we all make together over time. The Latin term, traditio, means “assumptions, beliefs and patterns of behavior handed down from the past.” That sounds simple. However, anyone who has ever played a game of telephone — passing information through a large group — knows that handing on “assumptions, beliefs, and patterns of behavior” isn’t just an exercise in repetition. Things get mixed up, omitted, embellished. As contemporary social theorists point out, tradition is in a constant state of being invented. “One has to bear in mind that any tradition develops,” writes Danièle Hervieu-Léger, “through the permanent reprocessing of the data which a group or society receives from its past.” We make tradition as we reflect on history — and on the experience of previous generations with that history — thus changing the story and practices as we go.

In short, tradition is a living thing. By its very nature, making and remaking tradition involves imagination, creativity, ferment, disorder, and conflict.

This line from the letter sent to the Kennedy family about Black Santa caught my attention: “You should try not to deceive children into believing that I am negro. I am a caucasian (white man, to you) and have been for the past 600 years.” In effect, the letter writer (in addition to being a bigot) insisted that Santa had been the same yesterday and so is today and will be forever. Tradition doesn’t change. He was, of course, wrong. And the Kennedy family was remaking tradition to be included in the story — something black families have been appropriately doing for some time now — and something we humans always do. We adapt the past to the present, allowing it to speak in new ways, and shaping it to meet new challenges as cultures change. Black Santa, brown Santa, white Santa, Asian Santa — all have become “Santa” for the children of a diverse and pluralistic America.

And it isn’t just Santa. I have a display of mangers from around the world. On the sideboard in my living room, there’s Jesus, Mary, and Joseph with shepherds, wise men, and animals. There are European crèches, from Italy, France, and Germany. There are Latin American ones, from Mexico and Argentina. There’s a manger from Israel, with a Jewish baby Jesus. There’s a Navajo Jesus. Most years, I add a scene from a different part of the globe — enlarging my family’s sense of the universal Christ. The crèche, of course, isn’t history. It is a custom, a tradition wrapped around an historical event that happened 2,000 years ago. As such, it is symbolic, an artistic representation, not literal. It is a story laden with meaning for our own lives.

All pictures of the manger scenes are courtesy of Getty Images.

The historical fact, however, that Jesus was born of peasant Jewish parents doesn’t change. But the face of that Jesus has been seen in millions and millions of faces over time, a Jesus born into all human cultures, and a Jesus who is present in every race and ethnicity — the Jesus of our cultures and experience does. The Jesus whom historians still search out; the Christ of experience and imagination in whom every believer can find him-, her-, or theirselves. Black Jesus, Asian Jesus, brown Jesus, European Jesus. Every Jesus we can imagine. Our faces. The faces of God.

Because everyone is welcome to the story.

(The quotes about tradition in this article are from my book, The Practicing Congregation2004)

Visit Diana Butler Bass’ website here.

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