Tag Archives: Christmas

Yes, actually, they DO know it’s Christmas: Imperialism and the holidays

My least favorite Christmas songs involve people feeling sorry for other people.  There’s no better way to encourage smug self-satisfaction about your superior life than listening to songs where people buy shoes for little boys who have mothers with cancer.  At least the shoe song is about local, face-to-face charity.  The all-time most annoying Christmas song, in my opinion, is Bob Geldof’s 1984 “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, a world-wide smash hit and Christmas Number One in the UK.  I know that I am not supposed to hate this song, because all the profits went to help sick and starving children in Africa—not once, but three times (it was re-recorded in 2004 and 2014, both times as charity singles).  But this song embodies for me all that is wrong with formerly (?) imperial countries and the way that they understand the world.


An image from Iceland’s banned Christmas advert–perhaps the orangutan isn’t starving enough?

First, there is the idea that white westerners must save the Africans.  This is problematic on two separate accounts.  One, it ignores the fact that white, western countries stripped African countries of people and resources for hundreds of years through colonialism, and continue to do so—just ask the UK supermarket chain Iceland, whose Christmas advert heralding their ban on palm oil, the harvesting of which destroys orangutan habitats, was banned for being “too political” (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/09/iceland-christmas-tv-ad-banned-political-greenpeace-orangutan).  Nowhere in Geldof’s song does it suggest that Britain might help Africa because Britain helped cause the problem in the first place.  Two, even if you quibble with the notion that European colonialism continues to affect African countries, the idea that Africans need pity (rather than, say, economic development, fair trading practices, or reparations) perpetuates a racial hierarchy that is often felt much closer to home in the UK or US.  Several children’s books written by people of colour detail the humiliation of being compared with “pitiable” Africans; Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s semi-autobiographical Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995), for example, includes a school lesson about the famine in Biafra (1967-1970).  After hearing from Sister Agnes tell the class that “We in the West are fortunate to have fertile land, enough food, water and wealth . . . We must help those who are less fortunate” (29), Hope watches the pictures of the Biafran famine with horror and shame.  “How could Grandpa be proud to be descended from Africans?” (29) she asks.  Then she realizes that the rest of her class associates the starving children with her, even though she is from Jamaica: “I was the only black girl in the class and everyone looked at me” (29).  Hope’s classmates learn the lesson that it is acceptable to be racist, as long as you are charitable while doing so.  As Bono famously sings in the Geldof song, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

The linking of race and poverty (consciously or not) is the most egregious of problems with “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” but it is not the only one.  Simplistic attitudes toward “the world outside your window” range from the idea that “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” (it actually does snow in Ethiopia, although not in the plains); to the idea that all Africans would care if they knew it was Christmas (about a quarter of the population is Muslim, to say nothing of other non-Christian religions); to the idea that if people don’t have the consumer trappings of a Western-style Christmas, then they will not recognize the day as Christmas.  Rachel Isadora’s The Night Before Christmas (Putnam 2009) tries to counter some of the stereotypical attitudes toward Africa by resetting Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in Africa.  Her dreadlocked Santa visits a family in Africa, bringing snow in his wake and providing presents from his sack.  Isadora, who is white American, lived in Africa for ten years, and has redone a number of traditional European and American tales by placing them in African settings; and although I think they are designed more to counter those naïve stereotypes about people in Africa for white people than I think they are for Africans themselves, it is still nice to see a book with a Black Santa on the cover.


There will be snow in Africa–and Santa Claus too.

I thought about imperialism and its continuing effects too when I saw the cover of Esmeralda Santiago’s A Doll for Navidades (Scholastic 2005), which shows two brown girls cuddling a white doll.  Santiago, who is Puerto Rican, and illustrator Enrique O. Sanchez, who is Dominican, did not accidentally depict a white, blonde, blue-eyed baby doll.  The story is based on an incident from Santiago’s own childhood, when she longed for a doll like her cousin had and specifically requested the blonde blue-eyed baby as a present.  This recalls Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s infamous 1950 “doll test” in which all children of any colour who were offered white dolls or black dolls chose the white dolls.  The experiment was used as evidence in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to demonstrate the effects of systemic racism on children’s self-image.  Two of my former students—one Puerto Rican and one Dominican, as it happens—are currently looking in to what it means to have “national” children’s literatures in places where the shadow of imperialism (economic, political and cultural) still affects people on a daily basis.  What is interesting to me about Santiago’s book is that, while she allowed the white baby doll to remain, and titled the book A Doll for Navidades (Christmas), the book itself focuses on the difference between an American concept of Christmas and the Puerto Rican traditions.


Giving the readers what they expect? Santiago doesn’t get the doll, and she doesn’t get anything for Christmas, because gift-giving in her Puerto Rican childhood happened in January.

The main character does not ask Santa for the doll, nor does she get gifts at Christmas.  The family go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and eat traditional dishes on Christmas Day, but the gift-givers are the Three Kings, and the gift-receiving day is January 6th (their feast day).  Again, these are, I believe, deliberate choices.  Santiago, writing for an American audience, allows readers to think they are getting a story that mimics American stories of writing to Santa with demands—but then, without fuss, gives a story that introduces other customs.  Further, the main character does not get the doll because her family cannot afford it; but this is not a story of wretched poverty and reluctant self-sacrifice.  Her sister gets the doll, and—seeing the protagonist’s disappointment—asks her to be godmother to the doll.  The children had learned to desire the consumer object made in a white western mode, but tradition and familial love made Christmas (and Three Kings’ Day) a memorable feast.

Christmas in Another Color: Children’s Books for the Holiday Season

I have, in previous years, complained about the whiteness of Christmas books, so it is pleasant to be able to report *some* progress recently in British books that represent a wider variety of people.  Some of the best multiracial holiday books are coming out of smaller presses, who in many ways have led the charge toward changing the culture of British children’s books; hopefully the leadership of publishers such as Stripes and Nosy Crow will spill over into the mainstream presses—many of whom continue to reproduce a nostalgia for white Christmases in the UK.


Jannie Ho’s Christmas alphabet includes all kinds of kids.

Since my last blog was about books for babies, I’ll start this one with a Christmas board book, Jannie Ho’s Christmas ABC (Nosy Crow 2016).  Ho is a Boston-based illustrator who once worked for Nickelodeon, but Nosy Crow is a London-based publisher who won the British Bookseller’s children’s publisher of the year for 2017. The idea of an early concept book related to Christmas is hardly a new one; the children’s publisher Frederick Warne (who would later publish A Tale of Peter Rabbit and other Beatrix Potter stories) published The Father Christmas ABC in 1894 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2251033/The-ABC-Victorian-Christmas-revealed-Beautifully-illustrated-edition-childrens-book-discovered-University-library-P-plum-pudding-PlayStation.html), for example; and Little Golden Books (the “supermarket” bookseller of my childhood, known for The Poky Little Puppy and other books strategically priced and placed near the supermarket checkouts to entice weary parents with whinging children—not that my mother EVER had this problem of course) published The Christmas ABC by Florence Johnson, with pictures by Eloise Wilkin in 1962.  These books often repeat ideas—B is for Bell in all three, for example—but the images change.  The letter I is for ice in all three, and more specifically ice skating, but I’ll just leave the images to tell a story of a changing idea of who skates on the Christmas ice.

The letter G stands for games and shows children playing Blind Man's Buff, a popular parlour game at the time Father Christmas ABC from 1894; this book was found in Cambridge University’s rare book room in 2012.


Eloise Wilkins’ 1962 illustrations from Golden Book’s Christmas ABC.


Jannie Ho’s ice skater is different–and not just because of her Christmas sweater.

Jane Ray’s version of The Nutcracker (Hachette 2016) follows the general storyline of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, albeit in a modernized setting; Clara wears pajamas rather than the white lace-edged nightgown found in most ballet versions and she has multiracial friends who come to her party.  These friends unfortunately disappear at bedtime (though the text implies they stay at the house).  While it is true that in the ballet, Clara travels to the land of sweets with only the Nutcracker Prince to accompany her (not even her brother comes along), the final illustration in Ray’s book restores the unity of the white family only.  Nonetheless, Ray’s Sugar Plum Fairy is Black, and has not only a prominent place on the cover, but an illustration all to herself in Ray’s book, making it a lovely change in the traditional Christmas story.


Tradition and change in Jane Ray’s version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet.

Christmas is a time for thinking about others, and for older readers in Britain, Stripes Publishing produced I’ll Be Home for Christmas in 2016 in part to help raise funds for Crisis, a charity providing services for the homeless across the UK.  Prominent, award-winning writers contributed poems and short stories to the collection, including Benjamin Zephaniah and Sita Brahmachari.  Zephaniah’s poem, “Home and Away,” opens the collection with a very different version of Christmas than that produced by nostalgia merchants, but one that forms a familiar experience for many readers.  “I’d like to be home for Christmas/That’s where the rhythm wise hip-hop is,/ That’s where the rock and the jazz is/ The place where I dream happy/ Where I dance to sweet homemade reggae” (19).  Zepahniah’s Christmas carols of a different color remind readers that different doesn’t mean unhappy or unChristmassy.


A time for giving–Benjamin Zephaniah and Sita Brahmachari are among the authors helping Crisis at Christmas.

These recent Christmas books make all the more disappointing a recently reissued edition of Terry Deary and Martin Brown’s Horrible Christmas (Scholastic 2016).  The concept of horrible history is a fabulous one, and really draws the interest of many children (including, when she was younger, my own daughter) who are otherwise reluctant readers.  BAME history has always proved a tricky subject for the Horrible History franchise, as I’ve detailed in other blogs, books and articles.  While I’m aware that it might not be easy to make light of some BAME historical topics (probably a book on “Slimy Slavery” or “Egregious Empire” would raise eyebrows, to say the least), Deary and Brown often fail to include BAME people in British history even in noncontroversial ways.  This is true of Horrible Christmas as well.  The cover image provides a hint of what is between the covers, showing five white people (four of them men).  The only image throughout the 96 pages of horrible Christmas trivia that includes people who aren’t white is a tiny one of a group of carol singers on page seven.  They are about to have the door slammed on them.


Does tradition have to mean a White Christmas? Deary and Brown’s horrible holiday.

In fact, Deary and Brown’s book ends with a vision of Christmas future that is both a very white Christmas and a plea for helping others less fortunate—a page which recalls for me charity Christmas songs of the 1980s (yes, people around the world DO know it’s Christmas, even when they don’t or can’t celebrate it after all, you patronising so-and-so).  I prefer the final image in Jannie Ho’s Christmas ABC, and leave it with you along with Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 wish for a “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”


A Global Post-Christmas Stroll


The cover of Walk this World at Christmastime, showcasing a global celebration.

Christmas is over, and today many people head back to work, a little dissipated and not quite ready for heavy intellectual thinking. I myself have a pile of work to get back to, but I’m not really eager to jump from mince pies and cranberry sauce to my promised chapter on police brutality in children’s books. So instead, I thought I’d take a look at a book that arrived in the Christmas Eve post by illustrator Debbie Powell, Walk this World at Christmastime (Candlewick 2015) and extend the holiday a bit more.


Powell’s books try to engage multiple senses, particularly touch.


Powell has previously produced (like many children’s book illustrators) greeting cards and illustrated maps, but her specialty is board books with special features (shiny trucks and animals, for example) and lift-the-flap books, books that encourage a child to interact with the material presented. The theory behind these books is that their multimodal nature will spark increased learning through tactile, as well as visual and/or auditory senses. Walk this World at Christmastime is no exception, being a “Christmas around the world” book that is primarily visual, but includes factual information (written, not by Powell, but by the uncredited—on the front cover—Zanna Davidson and Mary Sebog-Montefiore) behind the multiple flaps on each page. There are 25 numbered flaps (like an advent calendar), but each page also has several unnumbered flaps. The flaps, numbered or not, contain information about traditions in various parts of the world; many of the numbered flaps describe traditional gifts or food, particularly toys and sweets.


The book’s single Jewish family lives in America; there are none depicted in the Middle East.


These kind of books are always interesting to me for the stories that they tell, as well as the stories they don’t tell. European countries get four of the book’s double-page spreads, as much as Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Central and South America put together. The book begins with the US and Canada, the only double-page spread that nods to other traditions (Hanukah and Kwanzaa); the Middle East (represented by Lebanon and Iraq) is filled with Christians in this book, as are India and Pakistan. The page showing Chinese and Japanese traditions looks, except for the elephants and a couple in kimonos, curiously European (partly because China is represented by Hong Kong, long a British territory). Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are not mentioned in the book at all, even in the places where they are the dominant religions. I understand that the book is representing Christmas traditions, but Jewish people celebrating Hanukah are represented, so it seems odd to leave other traditions out.


Additionally, the fact that the Jewish people are in America is not incidental to the book. Although Walk this World mentions Christians on the Middle Eastern page, it mentions neither Jews nor, somewhat surprisingly, Bethlehem. And this brings me to another observation about this global stroll: it strives for a non-confrontational global harmony that only works if the reader is ignorant of the world. In addition to the absence of Bethlehem, I would highlight two countries that are present in the book, and the pictures that present an idealized picture of holiday reality.


Nigerians leaving towns and cities by the busload for “home” in the poor and rural areas of the country.


The first is Nigeria, which, like several other of the represented countries, is over half non-Christian in its population. Leaving that aside, and the likelihood that Christmas celebrations might be interrupted by insurgents in the north, the two-page spread highlights Calabar Carnival as one of the ways that Christmas is celebrated. The carnival, although it is held in December and includes some Christmas events (such as carol singing) is not actually a Christmas event. While many places around the world do have Christmas carnivals, including some in the Caribbean that are connected with a past history of slavery and rebellion, these are not highlighted (no Caribbean countries are represented in the book), and the Nigerian carnival is relatively new. According to tourist information sites, “Ever since its inception in 2005, the Calabar Carnival has grown from just a state festival to a national brand” (http://infoguidenigeria.com/calabar-carnival/), and the aims of the carnival are primarily revenue generation and job creation, rather than celebration of Christmas.


The Calabar Carnival, in Powell’s book, is part of the Christmas celebrations that take place in this rural Africa.

Even though Calabar is a city of more than 350,000 people, the picture in Walk this World associates it with the rural villages to which urban Nigerians “return” at Christmastime. Most of the global south is depicted as celebrating in the countryside villages and markets, while the global north celebrates in cities and shops. This is a common depiction of the world in “global” picture books written by people from the US or Europe, and it suggests to readers that the global economic status quo, where the global south does the best it can to imitate European traditions despite their lack of access to economic and technological power is both normal and desirable by all.


Anyone can be St. Lucia in Powell’s Sweden . . .


The other picture that stood out to me was from Sweden, showing girls “dressed in white” for a St Lucia day parade. The picture stood out to me for positive reasons, unlike the African pictures: because it is pleasantly inclusive, with Black girls as well as white girls are dressed as the saint symbolizing light in the dark of a Swedish December. Unfortunately, this is a harmony that doesn’t always exist in Sweden. A Swedish department store who depicted a dark-skinned boy dressed as St Lucia in an advert this year was forced to pull it after racist abuse was directed at the boy (http://www.thelocal.se/20161205/swedish-festive-ad-pulled-following-racist-abuse-of-child).


Screenshot of the boy the Swedish department store chose to be among its “Lucias”. Photo by Janerik Henriksson.

Powell’s book does a good job of depicting Europe and the US as racially mixed, but given this and the controversy about the Mall of America’s Black Santa that I wrote about a few weeks ago, it is not an image that white Americans and white Europeans accept as harmoniously as Powell presents it. Walk this World at Christmastime is a lovely book, and I can attest to the fact that pretty much everyone likes lifting flaps to find secrets no matter what their age . . . but “this world” of Powell’s creation is very different from the one we all have to live in.