Christmas has endured many controversies over the course of its history. Most usually center on religious disputes or how much Christmas imposes of itself on parts of society that do not want it. But in recent years Christmas has seemingly become embroiled in an important ongoing societal dialogue: racism.
Every year from mid-November until the traditional feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6th many communities in the Netherlands celebrate what is commonly known as a St. Nicholas festival.
The festivities climax with a parade in which a very serious St. Nicholas arrives on a white horse and wearing the traditional robes of a bishop. Families and children line the streets to greet him and to accept the jovial well wishes of a black-faced character known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.
This has been the tradition in the Netherlands since at least the 1850s and never in that time was the practice officially declared racist.
But a UN observer from Jamaica saw the event two years ago and since then the event has headlined the news as protestors have clashed with police during the parades.
In this video – from 4 years ago – the view of Black Peter is explored from several perspectives and it highlights well the debate at hand:
The Netherlands does not hold an exclusive on racism and Christmas. The United States is now seeing instances where charges of racism have marred a Christmas event.
Christmas 2014 came on the heels of race-charged events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City where violent protesters claimed police brutality against blacks. Those protests fueled other demonstrations around the country including at the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
That conversation was extended when as 12-year old black boy was gunned down by police while playing with a toy gun. An activist famously declared Ralphie, a white boy in the movie A Christmas Story, an example of white privilege because police would not think of shooting him for playing with his Christmas gift of a gun.
Fox News host Megyn Kelly famously fanned the flames of racism by declaring Santa Claus and Jesus white in response to an editorial by a black journalist who said that Santa Claus should be replaced by a penguin as a central character at Christmas to children.
Recent race-related events in the United States are now inserting themselves into community holiday events.
In Georgia and Virginia the tradition for years in local holiday parades have been to include local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who march in civil war era uniforms carrying confederate flags. They have done so for generations without protest. That is changing. Communities expect protests at these events and with those protests come the threat of violence.
Other common cultural events and productions long associated with Christmas are being questioned for their racial elements. The Nutcracker has been declared racist by some for the stereotypical portrayal of ethnic dancers in Act II of the production.
The fact of the matter is that Christmas is an ancient celebration and in it is reflected the institutions of society over time.
America has showcased racism in times past through cultural productions that are now selectively edited – or no longer available at all.
In 1942 Bing Crosby starred in a movie titled Holiday Inn, the story of two veteran Vaudeville performers. One, played by Crosby, wants to retire from the stage and operate a club that is only open on holidays.
That framework showcases several American holiday periods in story and song. Lincoln’s birthday is famously celebrated in the film with Crosby in black face singing “Abraham” – a scene that is now routinely edited for replay on television. You can’t even find it on YouTube, though the song is still available:
This song and that scene from the movie are not the first to be excised from the archives. Try to find a copy of anything having to do with Disney’s Song of the South.
Consider this scene from A Christmas Story, from near the end of the movie. Is it racist? :
These and other controversies related to Christmas will never go away.