Dreaming of a White Christmas?

President Trump claims he has led the charge to bring “Merry Christmas” front and center in the public sphere. But, which Christmas is he and his supporters trying to save?

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Leading up to the Christian holiday, President Donald Trump offered a triumphal tweet for allegedly saving the phrase “Merry Christmas” from ongoing assault.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised voters that his administration would bring back the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Over the years, several conservative commentators have claimed there has been an ongoing “War on Christmas,” supposedly waged by left-leaning secularists attempting to remove Christmas, and traditional Christian values, from the public sphere.

However, a recent Pew Research Center study shows that roughly two-thirds of American adults are “not bothered by a perceived decline in religion in Christmas or does not believe that the emphasis on the religious elements of Christmas is waning.” Additionally, a vast majority of Americans believe that the “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” debate is not a real issue.

Nevertheless, President Trump’s defense of Christmas over the past several months has received praise from his supporters, including the Rev. Franklin Graham.

But the real question isn’t whether Trump has “saved” Christmas in the U.S. Instead, the real and more pressing question is which Christmas is he and his supporters trying to save in the first place?

Representation and Christmas

nativity snow photo
A European nativity scene.

Many have written about the importance of on-screen representation and how this matters particularly for people of color. On-screen representation, or the lack thereof, shapes the way people of color view themselves and are viewed by others. According to Nicole Martins of Indiana University, research seems to demonstrate that “if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.” Yet, very few, if any, have considered the issue of representation in the celebration of Christmas in the U.S.

From the lens of music, Christmas is predominantly White and Eurocentric. Nearly every popular Christmas carol—from “Angels We Have Heard on High” to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to “What Child Is This?”—is written by or set to music written by people of White and European heritage. There are very few exceptions, such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” an African-American spiritual song. Yet, these exceptions rarely are heard in department stores, on radio, or on television. What’s being communicated through our eardrums is that Christmas carols of any lasting value can only be composed by people of White and European heritage.

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Hallmark Christmas movies, a staple in many American households during the holiday season, is overwhelmingly White. Oftentimes, the number of people of color cast in these movies each year can be counted on one hand, and the number of people of color in lead roles is nearly nonexistent. The television network touted as the “Heart of TV” that aims to reflect the spirit of Christmas every year sends clear communication to its audience that Christmas is a sugary sweet, nice, and almost exclusively White holiday.

Racially and ethnically accurate decorations and depictions of Jesus and the holy family are remarkably difficult to find. More often than not, stores are filled with images of Mary and Joseph with European-features, cards of nativity scenes blanketed with Midwest America-like snow, and a white-skinned baby Jesus surrounded by similar white-skinned-looking angels. These decorations and depictions, said to represent the holiest Christian season second only to Easter, are a travesty to a basic understanding of world history.

When you survey the landscape of everything commonly associated with the celebration of Christmas in the U.S., it is nearly impossible to differentiate it from a White, Eurocentric Christmas. It is no wonder that people of color have often considered Christmas a White man’s holiday.

black nativity photo
Photo by Mark Gstohl

White Christmas

Quite frankly, there really isn’t any excuse for the “whitewashing” of Christmas in our country. Indigenous Christmas carols and songs from around the globe and from marginalized people groups in the U.S. are abundant and easily accessible. Skilled actors, actresses, and directors of color are not difficult to find, and crafting stories of a multicultural world is often as simple as taking a look at the everyday life of any of the cosmopolitan centers in the U.S.

White and European depictions of Jesus are no more historically accurate than depictions of a Korean Jesus. It isn’t difficult to accurately portray Jesus as the brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, impoverished person that he truly was. Yet, while we have no excuse, we continue to perpetuate a White Christmas (pun intended).

Even if President Trump’s Christian supporters believe he has “saved” Christmas and brought it back into the public square, one has to wonder if it is a Christmas Jesus would recognize.

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