EssaysRaceRace/isms

“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” – But They are Not

As the holidays are coming to an end, I return to New York after a week spent in Puerto Rico with my family. The island is enchanting: it has opened itself to tourism, without selling its soul to it. What most impressed me upon our arrival in San Juan was the number (and strangeness) of Christmas decorations. Instead of the usual western iconography, here Christmas is most often symbolized by what appeared to me as a small detail of the nativity scene: the three Magi. Furthermore, funnily enough, instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the three exotic kings have musical instruments in their hands — as a reminder of the overwhelming importance of salsa, which one hears on almost every corner of the city. For the whole week we spent traveling around the island I kept asking myself “why such a choice?”

Instead of pretending I did not grow up in a deeply Catholic and Christmas-obsessed country, I will on the contrary admit it. In the depths of my mind, I have a very different image of the nativity scene. Its minimalist version includes the little humble hut, with Mary and Joseph, along with an ox and a donkey, bending over the cradle of the newborn Jesus. Above them, the blond angel, and on the side — but only on the side — the three Magi, following the shining guiding star. Further decorations (in its maximalist version) may include shepherds, sheep, cattle, craftsmen, rivers, lakes, and possibly even some snow. But the basic core of the nativity scene is, unmistakably, the holy family: mother, child, and that kind of strange substitute father who is Joseph.

Why have the Puerto Ricans exchanged the little hut for the three Magi? It is in fact the three of them that one sees in public squares, in the streets, in shopping malls and houses as the canonical Christmas decoration. I asked around and the reply I received was a very general “I do not know” or the somehow more circumstantial “because the Magi arrived as the latest in the nativity scene and it is thus the last event that we picked up to stand for the whole of it.” Both explanations left me doubting, to say the least.

As we continued traveling around the island, visiting small villages outside of the touristic crowds, another possible explanation came to my mind. By walking in the streets, I am shocked by the difference between the people (especially women) represented in advertisements and the real people in the streets: the former are in fact invariably lighter-skinned than the latter. In particular, beauty products are constantly advertised through “lactified” images of women, some of whom are even blond-haired. Maybe this has something to do with their Christmas decoration, too?

With this puzzle in my mind, we traveled to Vieques, where we spent a few days before heading back. After purchasing our tickets for the ferry, it is explained that locals have a priority boarding (fair enough) and it is suggested we take advantage of the waiting area next to the ferry. It is December 13 and, although the next ferry is set to arrive in one hour, the seats are already full except for two. It is a four-seat row, with two local women sitting in the two middle seats. As I am traveling with my partner and our two small kids, whom I know would like to sit next to each other, while we stand next to them with the luggage, I kindly ask the two women: “would you mind scooching over?” — by which I obviously meant to just move one seat on their right. But one of them looks at me and nervously replies that she wants to remain where she is “because there are pigeons there.” I am puzzled, because there are no pigeons where I had proposed for her to sit. All the four seats of the row were indeed in the middle of the waiting area and thus fully covered by its metal roof.

The more I thought about the “pigeons” the more I was puzzled. It was only when the ferry approached — when the two women reached two men who were standing at the edge of the waiting area under the threat of pigeon excrement — that I understand: those were indeed the pigeons she meant. But how could she possibly have thought that I was asking her to leave us their seats and go outside of the waiting area? I realize that “scooch over” is a possibly complicated expression (and it took me some time to learn it, too), but I wonder: would she ever have thought the same, had she been as white as I am? I do not know. But I suspect now that the reason why they picked up the three Magi for their Christmas decoration is because they are the only ones who are allowed to be dark-skinned in the colonizers’ nativity scene.

As I read Jeffrey Goldfarb’s post “Season Greetings,” I think about that Christmas song that I have heard since I was a child and that always evoked in me the kind of typical holiday season warmth and nostalgia; as I recall in my mind its melody and the warm voice of Bing Crosby singing it, I whisper to myself its initial strophe: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…”. Maybe despite all, I am still dreaming of a white Christmas, but perhaps they are not.

Also for you:

Chiara Bottici

  • Juan Decastro

    I’ve come several months late to this post, but I wonder if the answer to the question proposed–regarding the reason for the great popularity of the three Magi–is not much simpler. In the Hispanic world the Magi have traditionally fulfilled the role that Santa Claus fulfills in the US Christmas imaginary. Children in Spain and Spanish-America have traditionally received their presents on January 6, the day of the Magic according to the Catholic Church. Of course, this tradition is being undermined by the introduction of the figure of Santa Claus as a result of the influence of U.S. media. In my opinion, the question that merits examination is why Puerto Ricans are holding on to this tradition while others in Latin America are rapidly replacing the multi-ethnic Magi with the monochromatic Santa Claus.

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