Dec 24, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Black Santa, Latino Jesus: How holiday icons are changing in 2020

American Sprinter Carmelita Jeter gives a Black power fist with Mr. and Mrs. Black Santa at an annual Compton, Califorina, Toy Giveaway
American Sprinter Carmelita Jeter poses with Mr. and Mrs. Black Santa at an annual Compton, Calif., Toy Giveaway in December 2017. Photo: Jerritt Clark/Getty Images

Black Santa, Native American Nativity scenes, and diverse-cast Christmas movies are becoming regular sights around the holidays as U.S. demographics transform.

Why it matters: Advertisers, shopping malls, and movie studios have finally embraced diverse holiday imagery during a national reckoning on race and as communities of color continue to claim Christmas as their own celebration.

  • Public events involving Black Santa have gone from a handful in 2016 to more than 200 this year, even during the pandemic, said Vivian Walker, founder of the Black Santa Directory.
  • More holiday ads in the U.S. and U.K. are featuring diverse families.
  • Artists are selling Nativity scenes with the Holy Family as Latino immigrants or as Jemez Pueblo members in front of a New Mexico adobe home.

Driving the news: A Black family in North Little Rock, Ark., received a racist letter last month in response to putting a Black Santa on their front lawn. White neighbors responded by putting Black Santa decorations on their own lawns in solidarity.

  • A United Methodist Church in Claremont, Calif., recently built a Nativity scene with a Black Lives Matter theme. Last year, the same church had a Nativity scene with Baby Jesus as a caged Latino migrant child.
  • This year's Lifetime TV movie, “A Sugar & Spice Holiday,” is one of the first major Christmas flicks with a mostly Asian ensemble. Netflix's new holiday hit "Jingle Jangle" centers around an all-Black cast in the Victorian period.

What they’re saying: "Black Santa builds self-esteem for Black children but also speaks to parents of children of different races," said Dr. Jihan Woods, a doctor in Dallas and founder of the Find Black Santa app.

  • Woods said the Black Lives Matter protests this summer made people of color more comfortable displaying diverse holiday icons that reflect their experiences.
  • "If this is us, then it has to look like us," said Alexandro Jose Gradilla, a Chicana and Chicano Studies professor at California State University, Fullerton.

Between the lines: Scholars say the depiction of Santa Claus as a white man originated because he was a European import, a blend of the Dutch Sinterklaas and British folklore character Father Christmas.

  • Images of a light-skinned Jesus were made popular by Renaissance European artists, later brought over to the Americas.

Yes, but: Santa Claus is also linked to Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Greek bishop in modern-day Turkey, who was likely a dark-skinned man.

  • The historical Jesus was a Palestinian Jewish man. Scholars say Jesus and his mother, Mary, likely had dark skin and curly, dark hair.
  • "It's interesting that, as people of color are reclaiming their figures to be reflective of themselves, these figures are returning to what they actually looked like," Laura Elena Belmonte, a Univerity of New Mexico Chicana and Chicano Studies professor who studies religion.

The bottom ilne: Walker said images like Black Santa and diverse Baby Jesus are mainly for the adults. Kids will jump into the spirit no matter how figures appear.

  • "Children see a Black Santa and they just see Santa. They will run up to him, sit on his lap, and then it's down to business."
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