This is shaping up to be the strangest Christmas in living memory. London and other parts of the UK are now in Tier 4 lockdown meaning so many people can no longer gather with family members over the holidays. It’s another huge blow in a year that has felt like one giant setback. However, in other ways, 2020 has created opportunities for greater connection… even when it’s virtual. My holiday survival guide offers tips for handling some of the awkward family conversations that might crop up. Whether you’re in the same room or meeting over Zoom, this will help you navigate stuff like racist jokes, anti-maskers and kids questioning if Santa even exists.
Holiday Survival Guide: How to Handle Awkward Family Conversations
‘Is Santa real?’
Uh oh. So you’ve gone to painstaking lengths to assure your little ones that the big guy is coming their way. The excitement has been building for weeks. Now all of a sudden, doubts are creeping in. The ‘does Santa really exist?’ questions start coming up towards the end of primary school. By the time they enter secondary, most kids have cottoned on (or been ‘corrected’ by older siblings/friends). Some parents are all about dishing out straight facts to their children, no matter the context. Others want to hold onto the magic for a little longer.
How to Respond
When my kids were younger, I would simply say ‘yes I believe in Father Christmas’ because I absolutely do believe in what he represents. But as children get older, they want more details. The response that I like best manages to be truthful and magical at the same time. Yes, Santa is based on a real character aka St Nicholas, who was the patron saint of children and you can find out all about him here.
Furthermore, the ‘spirit of Santa’ is very real, in other words the joy of giving without expecting anything in return. This is what those of us in the know (parents, family members etc) try to keep alive every Christmas and something we should celebrate all year round. Because the most wonderful part of Christmas comes through acts of kindness that make us feel more connected. Read this mum’s viral post on how she explained the secret of Santa Claus to her kids.
‘Can there really be a Black Father Christmas?’
When I was a little girl in Enugu, Nigeria, we used to visit Father Christmas at our local supermarket grotto. Walking through a dark tunnel glistening with tinsel, the echoes of Christmas music and the anticipation of a strange man to cuddle you at the other end… To be honest, I found it all a bit creepy. Back then, Father Christmas was a Black man in a white beard.
When I moved to England, I don’t remember being at all surprised that Santa was now White. I’m telling you this to assure you that kids can be quite flexible about this stuff and often take things at face value (especially when magical beings are involved). However, some might have questions about a Black Santa. Like, how is that even possible if he comes from the North Pole?
How to Respond
If you’ve had the discussion about the ‘spirit of Santa’ above, you could talk about how that spirit is open to anyone, whether Black, White, Brown, old, young, or whatever gender. I mean, if Santa is magical, he can appear in any form he chooses. Over the years, most kids figure out there are lots of different ‘helper’ Santas doing the same work, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be a Black Santa.
It’s especially important for Black and Brown children to see themselves reflected in everyday traditions and also for White children to learn to identify with heroes who don’t always look like them. Follow @NoirKringle -The Black Santa’s Grotto to learn about her mission and the joy she brings to Black families at Christmas.
‘Why Is That Person Sleeping on the Street?’
When you take them shopping or to see the city lights, it’s not uncommon for kids to be struck by the numbers of homeless people on the streets. As it’s getting colder outdoors and the focus on spending time with family grows, you might face tough questions about why some people don’t have a roof over their heads. Can you invite them home with you? Isn’t that what Christmas is about?
How to Respond
There are so many factors that contribute to the homelessness crisis e.g. inequality, austerity, addiction and abuse, racist housing policies… and that’s just for starters. While these seem like big, uncomfortable topics to approach with young ones, I’m an advocate for having big, uncomfortable family conversations that help everyone grow. However, you don’t have to tackle it all at once.
You could start by saying you are proud of your child for paying attention to this and that it’s important, especially at this time of year, to look for ways you can help people in need. Explain that life and society can be very unfair and sometimes it feels overwhelming.
The best thing to do is to do something, no matter how small. You might not be able to house all the homeless people, but you can offer money, food, some of your time. Challenge your kids to come up with ideas for simple things you could do as a family to brighten someone else’s day during what can be a dark and difficult holiday period for many. You can make a donation to Shelter or support community organisations like Union Chapel in Islington.
‘Yeah, But All Lives Matter.’
In 2020, more people around the globe woke up to the fact that racism is still alive and killing Black people worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement became a worldwide call to action, following the murder of George Floyd by a White policeman. You would think Black Lives Matter was a straightforward concept. But you might find yourself knocking heads with that guy who tells you ‘All Lives Matter’ in response to any appeal for the value of Black Lives.
How to Respond
Here’s a simple example: When adults and kids go out marching for climate change with banners stating ‘Save Our Planet’, you don’t find other people waving protest signs that read ‘All Planets Matter’. In fact, the only people who protest are those who deny climate change is even happening. Similarly, anybody stating ‘All Lives Matter’ is basically denying that racism is a problem and devaluing Black Lives in particular. You cannot claim to care for all lives (or indeed, all planets) if you cannot show support for every human life. Here’s comedian Michael Che’s hilarious take on All Lives Matter.
‘Masks are for Morons!’
One of the most tricky aspects of the pandemic has been coping with other people’s ideas of how to manage it. I’ve heard anecdotal reports of people being shouted at on trains and in supermarkets, simply because they’ve accepted the advice to wear a mask or face covering. The fact that masks have become politicised pretty much sums up the current state of divisiveness here in the UK and the USA.
How to Respond
Keep calm and keep your mask on. Explain that while you accept people might have different opinions, you have given it careful consideration to make your own decision. You believe that wearing a mask is one of the simplest ways you can help protect yourself and others from a deadly virus. You believe that coronavirus is real and a serious enough threat that you are willing to take whatever precautions are available for yourself and your loved ones.
You do not care about whether they think it’s a government conspiracy/you are one of the ‘sheeple’/Bill Gates has infected your mind or any other theory. You care about being safe and alive and more importantly, doing your best to help others stay that way. Besides, wearing a mask makes you feel a bit like a superhero/ninja and it keeps your face warm in winter. Read some sensible advice on masks from a doctor.
‘Why Don’t All Kids Get Presents? Are They Too Naughty?’
The concept of a ‘naughty or nice list’ is fun for many families. However, it can put an unfair burden on families with less income. After all, why do some children get shedloads of toys while other kids receive hand-me-downs or no presents at all? Think about all those ads you see around Christmas, urging you to spare a penny for starving kids in India. All those songs about whether they know it’s Christmas in Africa (I’m African, we’re pretty familiar with Christmas actually). You might forgive a small child for wondering whether all the children of Africa and Asia are on Santa’s naughty list.
How to Respond
How about you do away with the whole nice/naughty tradition as @rebel.lou suggests? Or if you want to keep it going, treat is as a game rather than a rewards system? With our boys, we always told them Santa brought one gift and the rest were from parents or family members. This made things a lot easier when we spent Christmas in Nigeria with loads of cousins and decided to do a Secret Santa with each child receiving just one toy. I can still remember how blown away Ezra and Jed were to receive their wished-for Ninja turtle each!
Get your child to think about what toys they own that they could give to someone who has less. Explain to your child that gifts don’t always come in physical form and that Santa can also share the gifts of fun, magic, love and kindness. In fact, these are the most important gifts of all. You can also talk about how not everybody celebrates Santa but there are many cool holiday traditions all around the world. Have a look at some together.
‘What Do You Call A (Insert Racist Joke)?’
Since the publication of Bringing Up Race, one question that I’m asked a lot is how to handle racist relatives. This can become especially tricky around holiday gatherings. In 2020, sadly there will be less opportunities for loved ones either to cuddle you or to rub you up the wrong way. Still, you might find yourself staring up Uncle Bigot’s nostrils on the Zoom party from hell.
How to Respond
I’m all about breaking chains when it comes to racism (and other deadly forms of injustice). This doesn’t mean you get to ride around like Daenerys Targaryan on an ego trip. What I’m talking about is disrupting racist thoughts, actions and patterns however they show up. Especially so you don’t let them pass on to the next generation. You can do this gently by asking questions that force the other person to reconsider what they’re saying e.g. ‘Why do you think that joke is funny? Do you realise that it contributes to racist and ignorant ideas about (this ethnic group)?’
Or simply call it out and cut off that line of discussion. ‘That was racist. I’m raising my family to be anti-racist so I’d appreciate you never saying anything like that in front of me or my kids.’ If you don’t want to cause a scene, you could send a private message. But make sure you don’t sit there grinning and bearing it. Your silence makes you just another link in that racist chain. For more tips on handling racist relatives check out this guide from @EverydayRacism_.
Be Cool. You don’t have to lose your shit, have a genius comeback or prove your argument. Focus on sharing your own experience and suggesting ways the other person could rethink their point of view.
Be Kind. Remember, we are all at different stages of our learning journey. And we all need a little grace along the way.
Be You. Stay open to other ideas but stick to what you know to be decent and true. If nobody is in your corner and things get overwhelming, take a pause, smile and remember who you are. A badass breaker of chains.
For more advice on handling difficult yet important conversations with children and family members, pick up a copy of Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World. The book is available in hardback, ebook and audiobook in all good bookshops including Amazon UK, independent bookstore hub Bookshop and Waterstones.