Hail Epiphany and farewell to Christmas (and white Santas)

Hail Epiphany and farewell to Christmas (and white Santas) January 6, 2014

First things first: I hope that readers who are into that whole Christian calendar had a great 12 days of the real Christmas season, as opposed to the six or seven weeks of whatever that is that ends with an explosion of wrapping paper on Dec. 25.

Did anyone throw 12th night parties?

So this brings us to the great Feast of Epiphany, which in our ancient churches is the second most important day on the calendar after Easter/Pascha. More important than Christmas? Well, it’s hard to rank these things, but the key element of this day — marking the baptism of Jesus — is the scriptural account of the revealing of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. That’s big. In the West, the feast tends to focus on the arrival of the Three Kings at the cradle of Jesus.

To my surprise, Epiphany has been getting a bit more news ink in recent years (surf this search-engine file for a current sample).

Personally, I think it’s the whole photo-op principle at work. I mean, who doesn’t want to show up to put the following into shivering pixels?

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Thousands of young men plunged into icy rivers and lakes across Bulgaria on Monday to retrieve crucifixes cast by priests in an old ritual marking the feast of Epiphany.

By tradition, a crucifix is cast into a lake or river and it’s believed that the person who retrieves it will be healthy and freed from evil spirits throughout the year.

The celebration of Epiphany, or the Apparition of Christ, as Bulgarians call it, began in Sofia with a water-blessing ceremony. The head of Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neofit, said a prayer for the prosperity of the people and blessed the colors of representative army units — a tradition abandoned in 1946 and re-established in 1992.

Concerning that whole health and evil spirits thing: I think it’s wonderful, in stories of this kind, to mention folk and small-t traditions. However, it does help to include at least one sentence about why the feast exists in the first place and what church doctrine — that whole big-T Tradition thing — says about the symbolism of these kinds of rites.

Oh, and the “celebration of Epiphany” — as in the feast itself — began in Sofia? I think that what the AP team meant to say that this year’s celebration of the feast in Bulgaria began in Sofia. By the way, for the Eastern Orthodox this is known as the great Feast of the Theophany.

Anyway, I am glad to see increasing coverage of this great feast. I am curious, however: If Protestants are growing more interested in liturgy and ancient rites, is this truly affecting how they celebrate Advent, Christmas and Epiphany? There might be a story there next year.

As opposed to that other huge, massive, crucial, apocalyptic story almost everyone covered this year.

You know the one: The whole “white Santa” thing?

Looking back on that media storm, what was that really about (other than a chance to jump on a statement by a Fox News star)?

Here in Charm City, the Santa war finally ended up on A1 with you basic local-angle story, which was valid in its own right. Here’s the top of that Baltimore Sun report:

When he was growing up near Mondawmin Mall and the Christmas season rolled around, Andrew Dubose rarely missed a chance to visit the old man in the red suit and white beard who always gave him such a warm holiday greeting.

Now 39, married, and the father of three, Dubose drives his children from the family’s home in Randallstown so they can sit with the same man in exactly the same spot — Lucas Durant, the longest-running black Santa Claus in Baltimore.

“Santa loves you,” Durant, 65, tells Dubose’s children, Jasmine, 15; Mason, 2; and Drew, 6 months, as he did their father decades ago.

“Santa Luke,” as he’s known, has been Kriss Kringle at Mondawmin Mall for 29 years running. For many, dropping in for his hugs and ho-ho-hos is an intergenerational ritual, and not just because he, like the Duboses, is African-American.

And why is this news? Time for the summary paragraph:

This season has been an acrimonious one when it comes to Santa Claus, especially concerning a question that has rarely been asked as openly as it has this year: Why is the familiar Christmas icon nearly always portrayed as a Caucasian?

Last week, a blogger at Slate, Aisha Harris, raised the question by writing that the practice of presenting Santa as “an old white male” can shame black children and should be changed. The column rankled Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who called the idea “ridiculous” and sniffed on the air that “Santa just is white.”

Reverse racism; white privilege; political correctness. From CNN and Time to the Gawker website, the media have been abuzz with charges and countercharges since.

So what do we know about this Santa Claus guy? Time to call in the authoritative academic!

Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and an African-American, said she told her now-grown daughter that “Santa Claus was the spirit of Christmas,” and that meant Santa could look different.

Still, she says, seeing Santas of different races can be affirming for minority children, in the same way that they benefit from having teachers of different races.

What’s missing?

The story quotes lots of interesting voices about this issue, but no one actually talks about where this Santa thing began — following the trail that runs from your local shopping mall, through the offices of advertising pros in 19th century New York City, into the folk traditions of Amsterdam and other European cities and, eventually, into church traditions about the life and work of the actual St. Nicholas of Myra.

Here is my question: Other than the historical roots of the pop-culture Santa, what is this story actually about? I mean, the man named St. Nicholas is from the land that we now call Turkey. What color is that and why does it matter?

I agree with a lot of what Jeffrey Weiss said here:

… Santa is a splendid figure of imagination. Therefore, arguing that he has to be one color is like insisting that unicorns can only be one color or that leprechauns are only allowed to wear one brand of skivvies. Or like setting a limit for how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Beyond that, what does it mean to say that Santa and Jesus are “white”? In today’s multiracial America, the claim sounds as anachronistic as the definition of an octoroon (a person of one-eighth black ancestry). But let’s play along:

The image of Santa is anything but eternal. And it’s been revised any number of times. The original character may well have been real: Legends grew up over the centuries about a Bishop Nicholas of Myra, a town on the southeast coast of what is now Turkey. Was the fourth-century bishop a fat, rosy-cheeked man in a fur-lined red suit?

Nope. He was likely to have had an olive complexion, given the population. And a dark tan, given the climate. And while winter in Myra will dip into the 30s, he wouldn’t have had much use for the heavy snow garb.

So St. Nicholas of Myra turns into Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas and eventually, in the hands of advertising giants, into Santa — period.

What’s my point? If journalists want to wade into controversies about the alleged Santa, it really helps to devote at least one or two paragraphs to the history of the symbol. Otherwise, what’s the point?

See you next year, I’m afraid.

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17 responses to “Hail Epiphany and farewell to Christmas (and white Santas)”

  1. “First things first: I hope that readers who are into that whole Christian calendar had a great 12 days of the real Christmas season, as opposed to the six or seven weeks of whatever that is that ends with an explosion of wrapping paper on Dec. 25.”

    As a Protestant who understands the Christmas Eve celebration he and his congregation celebrated, as well as the Christmas Day one he and his family celebrated, to have been a way of worshipfully honoring our Savior, I would not reject a little more careful use of the world “real” in statements like this, nor a little more care in avoiding the equation of celebrations that focus on those days with the secular commercial holiday we all deplore.

    I recognize this is not a comment on the journalism under consideration and will understand if you think it should be spiked.

    • OK, “real” in the sense of historic, the patterns observed by Christians for nearly 2,000 years — including most Protestants until the mid-1950s or so. I mean, in terms of the facts of history, there is no question about the Christmas Season.

      So the journalistic question: When is Christmas?

      There seem to be two competing seasons. One is ancient and Christian. How would you describe the other?

      • Of course the reality is that Christians for much of church history have seen Christmas as a season. But I don’t accept the binary nature of the assumption that everything other than the ancient and traditional 12-day season is somehow not the “real” Christmas, or that we have to choose from between only those two options and no other.

        Wouldn’t it be similar to ask early Christians to choose between two competing understandings of Messiah? One would be ancient and Jewish (the great Davidic king who would restore the literal throne of Israel and usher in the Day of the Lord, and have many Mosaic characteristics as well), and the other would be this innovation claimed by the rabbi from Nazareth and his followers.

        In any event, I can’t see much chance that journalists who regularly confuse denominational distinctives, the words “evangelical” and “evangelist” and more often than not refer to therapist James Dobson by the title “Rev.” rather than the correct “Dr.” will devote much time to parsing any distinction between Christmas season and Christmas day.

          • There’s no disagreement from me about the possibility. There’s just pessimism about the likelihood.

        • TMatt referenced the “Christian calendar” which is a historical reference to liturgical seasons and events. Even though the East might have a few different choices for dates than the West there is a very long tradition of what is commemorated in that calendar. It doesn’t include a shopping season.

  2. In New Orleans, Twelfth Night marks not only the end of Christmas but the beginning of Carnival. I’ll be at the Twelfth Night Revelers’ ball tonight. My niece (and God daughter) is queen (but she doesn’t know it yet, so don’t blab!)

  3. I would recommend a scholarly book titled: “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus–The True Life And Trials of St. Nicholas of Myra” by Adam C. English Baylor University Press.
    Mr. English is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Campbell University and has made St. Nicholas of Myra a particular interest of his.

  4. On another blog I was just called a “pedant” for saying “decimate” means losing approximately 10% of your forces. So, as a pedant, I’m noticing something is also happening to words describing race. I have an ancestor who was an “octaroon” from Jamaica – don’t know how else to describe her. And there used to be the more common terms of black/African-American, Asian, Hispanic and white. Now there seems to be a move to the term “people of color”. What exactly does that mean? Everybody but “white” people?

    Is my Iraqi relative a “person of color” or “Caucasian” because her family lived lots closer to the Caucuses than Africa? My mother was mostly Norwegian but she was olive-complected; was she a “person of color”? Since Huckleberry Finn is a fictional character, can we make him anything we want? I don’t mean playing a character – I saw a recent great African-American singing the lead in “Carmen” playing a gypsy. But should we tell kids that Huckleberry is “black” just like Jim to make them feel better?

    What do journalists do when they feel the need to identify somebody’s race? The criteria keep changing.

    • Love your post! But if you are going to make Huck black, should you not make Jim white? Just to keep the teeter from tottering 😉

      • So we have a white slave escaping from black masters?
        Of course there is the veggie tales version where they set it in 1904, had a failed attempt to start up a tax consulting business (because the income tax did not yet exist), have Jim seeking his mother and fleeing Minnesota lumber camps, and who knows what is going on with race, because no one can identity the races of the vegetables.

    • This is a great post. When they had an article about Jesus being white on the Deseret News, I was one of two commentators that pointed out that per the definitions used by the US census he is white. Those of us in Metro-Detroit are a bit disgruntled about this, since it allows for calling Livonia “the most white city in the US”, because our Arabs are “white”, but Miami’s Cubans and Argentines who can trace all lines back to Europe are still somehow “not white”.

      • I understand that in the 1800s sometimes Italians were not considered “white”. I’m thinking the problem may have started with considering Anglo-Saxons as “white”, and later German & Scandinavian immigrants as “white”. But Southern Italians were seen as swarthy. How then to describe the Irish who were also not wanted and sometimes described as a different race? Funny that the Spanish were sometimes not even considered European – Spain and Portugal were considered a peninsular appendage to the European continent. I read that in Michener’s book on Spain. .
        We need to get rid of the race business.

        • In my high school in the 1990s we had Italians who did not consider themselves white. In about 2003 I had a Hispanic professor at BYU who was describing somewhere he had visited in Massachusetts. He listed a bunch of people who were there, one of whom was Russian, and then said there were no white people there. I have seen websites that had a place for you to fill out your race that had White, Black and some others including Russian and Italian.
          I have to say “Caucasian” is a word I hate. We do not still describe people as Negroid or Mongoloid. Why do we allow the 3rd leg of the false 3 race model to still live?
          Also not in line with the times is the system of racial classification used by the pre-Kindergarten program I am in. This is at least a Detroit Public Schools wide program. They have only 7 allowed racial classifications. They are Native American, African-American/black, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hisapnic-White, Hispanic-black and white. One of my colleges was saying none fit her, since she is both Native American and African-American. They also do not have a good categorization for people like Sean Reyes, Utah’s new Attorney General. He is part of organizations for both Hispanic and Asian professionals. His father was an immigrant from the Philippines who had Spanish ancestry. However Reyes mother was a white American.
          It never ceases to amaze me that 14 years after the census allowed people to mark multiple races, most forms to fill out race force you to chose one, or at best allow you to mark multi-racial, they fail to allow you to specifically identify the races you are.
          People are not some amorphous, undefined “multi-racial”. They are like Sean Reyes and clearly identify as both Asian and Hispanic, or Black and white, or Native American and black, or if they are from Oklahoma maybe Native American, black and white.
          Then there is Erika Harold, the type of person who the left-media just wants to ignore. Her willingness to speak out for abstinence as Miss America bothered them. Now her running for congress as a Republican just undermines their racial stereotypes. Of course, her very existence undermines the narrative of a racially divided nation, much more than Mia Love.
          Mia Love is the daughter of Hatian immigrant parents. Her existence does not undermine any narratives. Her conversion to Mormonism, and marriage to a white man named Jason Love does. So maybe we can say Mia Love undermines naratives, but Mia Bourdeau didn’t nearly as much.
          Erika Harold however is more complex, at least ethnically. On her father’s side she is Greek, German and Welsh. Nothing too complex there. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was not a representation of anything radical. There were marriages between Greeks and Italians or Greeks and French-Candians in the 1950s.
          Harold is on her mother’s side African-American, Native American and Russian. Although I am not sure about the Russian part. The source for her ethnicity only says that Harolds mother is African-American and Native American. On further review I found a source that mentions Harold having Russian ancestry, but until I see someone actually explain how Harold’s 6 part ancestry works, I will be skeptical about the Russian part. It might be there, but I want fact. Was her mother’s father or mother an immigrant from Russia? My best guess is that of Harold’s four grandparents, one was of Welsh and German descent, possibly with English and other ancestries as well. One was Greek, either an immigrant or the child of immigrants, one was African-American with some claimed Native American ancestry and probably with English and Irish ancestry as well, and one was Russian, either born in Russia or the child of immigrants.

      • Visiting Spain in the 90s I took a day trip to Morocco. The guide told us that we were likely to see a few blond, blue-eyed people. These were descendants of Visigoths who had invaded Spain and then moved on to North Africa. Sure enough, I did see two men in the casbah in Arabic dress who were blond and blue-eyed. Like the very famous Afghan light-eyed girl on the cover of National Geographic. http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photographers/afghan-girl-cover.html

  5. Did anyone throw 12th night parties?
    That would be yesterday…It was Sunday; the biggest thing going was church.
    Today was Epiphany, for us, a lightly attended church service this evening, partly because it hasn’t been done recently in this congregation, partly because it’s cold by Texans’ yardstick and they are urged to protect their plants and water pipes as much as possible.
    (The football might have stolen a few, although the most avid fan was at the service.)
    I think we leave “12th night parties” for N’awlins. 🙂
    Blessed Christmas for those who are only beginning to celebrate it!

  6. The notion that seeing Santa as “an old white man”, “shames” black children is just ludicrous. And why only black children? Does it “shame” white children to see so many positive portrayals of Martin Luther King? No.
    In the pre-school class I teach I drew a picture of Santa as black. The students are all African-American. Not one of them noticed his race at all, they just thought I had not drawn him fat enough.
    It is race mongers like Aisha Harris, not children, that care about race.