Background music, anyone? Played it out of my head. Just tap and go about your business, browsing blogs or sipping tea. I hope this piece adds joy and reverence to your holiday.
Once again I have trouble believing how fast it’s gone, the holidays all the more disarming in California for the arrant summer that asserts herself into months reserved for the cold. The year draws to a close, swift like winter night. Beneath the din, the festivities heighten the loneliness for many. It’s the dissonance between the merriment in the air and their private song; the expectations of the season that descend on their Christmas, their New Year’s in a great anticlimax. It’s what I grew up with.
The less you have, the greater the pressure you feel. To spend and to have loved ones to spend the holiday with in a special way. But these burdens are a luxury for people who’ll be grateful just to quiet the growling in their stomach. This time of year is especially hard on those bedridden in poverty. In last year’s New York Times article The Invisible Child, we see a bright girl named Dasani (now 12) struggling against forces beyond her control: “parents who cannot provide, agencies that fall short, a metropolis rived by inequality and indifference. Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction…her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction.
The Auburn Family Residence [is] a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. Dasani [the last several years was] among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belong[ed] to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression.“
Sexual predators, spoiled food, filthy communal bathrooms, vermin, and exposure to asbestos and lead were the norm for Dasani and her six siblings. They would wait in line for their prepackaged food in the cafeteria before sliding into another impossible line for access to the two microwaves that hundreds of residents share.
What breaks my heart is that the children “are bystanders in this discourse, no more to blame for their homelessness than for their existence. To be homeless it to be powerless.
Dasani was on the cusp of becoming something more, something she could feel but not yet see, if only the right things happened and the right people came along. In the absence of a stable home or a reliable parent, public institutions have an outsize influence on the destiny of children like Dasani. Whether she can transcend her circumstances rests greatly on the role, however big or small, that society opts to play in her life. School [like hers] can also provide a bridge to the wider world…Few [kids] have both the depth of Dasani’s troubles and the height of her promise. There is not much [her principal] can do about life outside school. She knows this is a child who needs a sponsor, who ‘needs’ to see The Nutcracker, who ‘needs’ her own computer. There are many such children. One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.”
What of these kids caught between the rock of their parents’ failures and the hard place of walls adorned with graffiti and mold? The hand of angels can reach in.
Though we may not be able to rescue everyone from cold, hunger, sickness, or loneliness, we can make a profound difference in so many ways. I name the stories you are about to hear the Candlelight Series after Eleanor Roosevelt who sought “to light candles rather than curse the darkness.” We’ll catch a glimpse of the hands that have lit the way for those frozen in the dark. Of people who chose to see the suffering and meet it with love, who decided they would be the right person to come along. People like the teachers and principal Dasani so desperately needs. We pay homage to those who helped us survive the night by candlelight.
A recent L.A. Times article described a celebrated Black Santa Claus, “the main attraction…at a mall…in the heart of black Los Angeles.” People actually first call “to make sure he will be there” before they head out on what is for some an hour’s drive.
The historical St. Nicholas was actually a wealthy Greek orphan born in Asia minor during the third century who grew up to become a bishop. He was supposed to have tossed gold coins anonymously down a chimney so three poor downtrodden sisters could get married. He became known for his charity and evolved into a synthesis of the Dutch legend, the German Sinterklaas, and the British Father Christmas. So Santa as we know him is a European of multicultural blood who started out as a Christian from the Mediterranean, neither white nor black but olive.
Santa does not play a part in my family’s Christmas celebration but the questions I pose are about something more than belief in him. The International University of Santa Claus based in L.A. has had three pupils among the 2,200+ Santas it has trained nationwide. Part of the difficulty lies in finding men who make a good match in charisma and physical features. Is affirmative action called for? Keeping Santa white would translate into preserving the status quo by hiring men on the basis of their skin color. Or do we lose something of the magic of tradition to diversify this legendary model? I feel we would, depicting Santa as a Korean man. Which brings us back to the black question.
When kids first sight Santa, say at the mall or on TV, are they getting a lesson that to have mythical powers of access into minds and homes, you have to be white? Nick’s a superstar. It meant a great deal to the African-American community to visit with a black Santa at the mall. “I just don’t want him [her godson] to think that all greatness comes from a different race,” said one shopper. Greatness is a weighty word. Should an Asian child, then, be given the chance to see himself, that is, “his own people” in such an iconic role? I wonder: when I explained to my then four-year-old who the Santa Claus he’d heard about was said to be, did he imagine a Korean grandfather figure with superpowers? If my boy did, it would imply an emotional need on his part to keep heroes close to home, to extend them naturally to the prototype of the person in the mirror and the people he lived with. Until every book, poster, movie replaced that picture with a white man who wields godlike faculties of omniscience and a modified form of omnipresence. Interestingly, my husband remembers from South Korea in the 70s that Santa was American. Today, kids in Korea know Santa is “in actuality” white and understand that the Korean Santas they see are imitation. The children don’t hold to as strong a belief in him as many do in America. Rather than help kids feel closer to the myth for seeing themselves, the Korean Santa models may be strengthening the sense of artificiality behind the famed figure. I’m not sure an Asian Santa would have the same effect on my son growing up where his ethnicity does not comprise the majority.
Now, I wonder what it does for kids who are not black, white children especially, to see a dark Santa. Will it confuse? After all, Santa is…well, the Santa. It is no fault of any people group that he gained worldwide popularity as a European. What if we want to – and ought we not – preserve the heritage that produced this celebrated figure from a certain geography and culture in time? Are we forcing cosmetic skin surgery on those who have achieved fame on their racial terms? It’s one thing to draw out Pocahontas and Mulan from the shadows into the global limelight. But insisting that Snow White be Snow Black is another. If we were to protest a monochrome representation of St. Nick, we should also be doing so on book and movie platforms. And how about Superman?
Should we leave Santa alone?
I am not arguing against Black Santas. I’m not speaking out of conviction but thinking aloud. Your thoughts, please. Floor’s all yours.