We had a white upper-middle-class Christmas this weekend. I don’t mean that we did the same things as all the other white upper-middle-class families, or that there exists a single model for a white Christmas in our tax bracket. I mean that our Christmas is shaped by the facts of our economic status and racial privileges.
As thirteen of us gathered around the dinner table, our commonalities were striking. Everyone around the table has a college degree, with quite a few advanced degrees. We all have good and interesting jobs or had them before we retired. Although we all are anxious about money some of the time, none of us worry about where the next meal is coming from or paying the rent. In fact, nearly all of us live in our own homes. Our celebration was determined by benefits accumulated over generations.
So there was nothing unusual for us when we exchanged more than 40 books, with lots of exclamations of “I’ve read that,” “Her other books are great,” and “Can I have that book after you?”
Although none of us are artists, we value artistic creation. We gave each other paintings, prints, ceramic tiles, and framed photographs, passing them around the circle, admiring the skill and vision behind them. All those gifts will be displayed in our homes, adding beauty to our daily lives.
The phrase “artisan foods” labels the contemporary desire for individually designed and carefully crafted foods of all kinds. We exchanged dried Michigan cherries and artistically decorated chocolates. “Homemade” hardly does justice to the foods created by my relatives: I got spicy coated nuts and mustards from my niece, sauces from my sister-in-law, and jam from my brother-in-law’s mother.
Food is always central to life, and modern American culture has radically transformed eating conventions in ways that showed up on our table. A staple of our Christmas breakfast had long been chipped beef on toast, what my father and father-in-law would have called SOS from their WWII days. Now that and the Christmas turkey are only memories. Our meals were meatless and much more imaginative and varied than the famous Norman Rockwell image of a holiday meal.
The new foods exemplify the gradual changes in our family Christmases each year. We remain comfortable with the familiar, but over many years small changes accumulate. Some are voluntary, like the abandonment of tomato aspic after years of mocking complaints by children. Others represent the inevitable passing of family time. Forty years ago, I was brought into this family’s Christmas by marriage, adding a bit of eastern European heritage to a northern European gathering. Now all the younger generation around the table have partners. A new generation has just made its appearance, although this year only virtually by instantly transmitted pictures.
Generations arrive and others pass. My family’s Christmas has long been defined by the December 24th birthday and grand personality of my father-in-law. A long struggle with Alzheimer’s that took away his personality now nears its end. He gave many gifts to all of us. We have given him the collective love and care that only family can offer. Around our table, hope for peaceful endings surrounded by family was a universal Christmas wish.
In our world, that is a luxury. Everything I’ve described is a luxury. We are so lucky to need nothing and be able to give everything.
We all recognize our good fortune. We worked hard for what we have, and owe much to previous generations who paid for our educations and could afford to help us financially at crucial moments. A new element in our family Christmas is the explicit recognition that we should use this occasion collectively to share our good fortune with others who have more unfulfilled needs. Many gifts were made to organizations who use our money to provide food for the hungry, medicine for the sick, and legal protection for the unjustly targeted. The dozen 30-somethings in my children’s generation decided that their gifts to each other would be charitable donations to causes they shared. That new idea makes a parent proud.
What’s white about our Christmas? I can’t be sure, because I have never experienced Christmas with a black family. I imagine that many minority families have celebrations like I have described. So our white privileges can seem invisible and thus easily overlooked.
But I know that our whiteness has made certain things much more likely for us in America. Our families could buy and grow up in homes in good neighborhoods. Grandparents and parents and children could get good jobs, earn good salaries, pay for fine educations, and then get another set of good jobs. None of us has been harassed by authorities, been passed over for promotions, been ignored or insulted or humiliated or threatened for being the wrong color.
My penniless immigrant father could move past Americans who had been here for centuries because he was white. Nobody challenged my right to succeed because of the way I looked.
I’m lucky, but I’m not thankful for that. It’s just what I, and everyone else, deserve.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 27, 2016