You have probably heard of cultural appropriation, one of the cardinal sins of 21st century. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Urban Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “taking aspects from a minority culture, for its aesthetics, without knowing the meaning behind.” And there is something to that. I don’t think you need to do hours of research just because you want to display an eastern influenced trinket from Home Goods on your mantle. I do think that we should strive to understand and respect the elements of other cultures with which we come in contact, even if those elements don’t reflect our own cultural or personal values. But that’s not what some people mean when they use the term “cultural appropriation.”
It seems to me that exaggerated claims of cultural appropriation come from a place of ignorance and feigned moral outrage to score political points. If we apply the cultural appropriation standard to our Christmas celebrations in America, it’s clear to see how out of hand the charges of cultural appropriation can get. And that’s what I’ll do shortly, so stay tuned!
Taking It Too Far
Some people take cultural appropriation to the extreme and say that unless an item, practice, or saying is from your culture, you must leave it alone. So, when a little white girl wants to dress up like Mulan or Moana for Halloween, she and her parents get shamed because they have the wrong skin color and culture for those costumes. Ironically, when some members of minority communities preach at the rest of us about the evils of cultural appropriation, they’re usually wearing blue jeans, which were invented by a dead white guy, Levi Strauss, who lived during the Wild West… just saying.
Unfortunately, artists and entertainers have adopted this more extreme version of appropriation and have determined that people should only create from their perspectives, which are pre-determined by their identities. So, a white person cannot write a book from the perspective of a black slave coming to America, and an able-bodied person shouldn’t paint from the viewpoint of someone in a wheelchair. Not only is this outrageous, it’s also insulting.
First, it assumes that identities, experiences, and perspectives are essentially the same, so that all members of a certain community are interchangeable. Secondly, it asserts that a person’s empathy and understanding only extend to others who look and think like him/ her. I think it’s safe to say that people of all races in the 21st century don’t know what it’s like to be on a slave ship in the 18th century. To say that only those of African descent can tell that story denies the human capacity to understand and commiserate with others’ suffering. What’s more, great writers like C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll wrote from perspectives that were not their own and created timeless, classical works that still resonate today.
Thirdly, it’s true that we are all limited by our own perspectives, and there’s a real sense in which a straight black man will never know what it’s like to be a trans Arabic woman. And when anyone takes on a perspective other than their own for the sake of art, it’s important that the artist does their best to approach that new perspective with dignity, knowledge, and accuracy. But if we want to understand those who aren’t like us, shouldn’t we be encouraging others to see things from new perspectives that are not their own? And isn’t art a great way for some people to do that? I’d say so.
What is we applied the logic of cultural appropriation to our Christmas celebrations? Well, I think many people would have to get rid of their Christmas trees. But the question is, who would be permitted to keep their tree? From what I recall, Christmas trees originated in Germany. Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, introduced them to England in the early to mid 1800s, and then I believe English Christian settlers brought them to America. So, under the rules of cultural appropriation, which Americans would be allowed to put Christmas trees in their homes? Americans of German descent, British descent, or the children of the original settlers who brought the Christmas tree to the New World?
Let’s talk about our favorite Christmas treats. I’m sure that most of us would hope that the dreaded fruit cake isn’t part of our heritage. We have the English to thank for holiday turkey and ham dinners, eggnog, and mincemeat pies. Candy canes are a German creation. Gingerbread and apple cider got their start in Greece and Rome, respectively, and later became popular during British Christmas celebrations. The first pumpkin pie came from Native Americans in Mexico almost a century ago. American holiday originals include peppermint bark, green bean casserole, pecan pie. I’m willing to bet that we all get out of our historical cultural lanes on most of these.
And what about classic Christmas carols? Many of these festive tunes like Silent Night and Hark! The Harold Angels Sing have explicit religious references. Since Christmas is a sacred day in the Christian and Catholic calendars, it would follow that only true believers should sing songs like these.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us don’t know the historical or cultural origins of many holiday traditions. While we may know how we got our family traditions, we probably don’t know why we decorate dead pine trees in our living rooms. And that’s okay. These older traditions have evolved and been mashed together to create the 21st century American Christmas culture so that we can connect to our past and to each other. That’s the point of culture, to give meaning to individuals and connect groups of people to a common tradition and to one another. And American culture, like others, changes over time as it assimilates the best parts of new cultures and amends its own practices.
The “Appropriate” Response
Of course, all of us should respect the cultures of others while we expose ourselves to different traditions and ways of thinking. And most of us should have thicker skin when it comes to others engaging with our culture. We should also recognize the ways in which cultures change as they collide with each other. Culture is supposed to give us part of our individual identity as well as unite us.
We also need to recognize a need to balance what makes us unique and what unites us. One of the benefits of living in a pluralistic society like ours is that we can celebrate special days and holidays together as a people and in our own ways. We can enjoy Halloween displays even if we don’t trick or treat. A Christmas tree in a shop window can brighten our day even if we celebrate another December holiday. And if we do celebrate these and other holidays, we can feel a camaraderie with acquaintances and strangers on these special days because despite our differences we have something transcendent in common.
So, whether you light a menorah or a Christmas tree, talk about Santa or the coming of Jesus Christ, we can all enjoy the Christmas spirit. It seems to me that we could use more than transcends our differences these days. Merry Christmas!
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P.S. Just for fun, what are some of your favorite Christmas traditions? Please comment below.