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Sunday, December 21, 2014

The 'Exotic' Three Wisemen

Previously on this blog, we’ve discussed the predominance of white Santa and white baby Jesus. But in a white default world, when do characters of color make an appearance in the Christmas story we tell?

On the occasion that nativity scenes do contain some amount of diversity, it is usually in the characters of the three wise men. These kings traveled from a far off land, and it seems are the only ones that have been ‘otherized' enough to be people of color at the foot of the manger. The message here is that they are ‘exotic’—they are not one of us.

So common is this type-casting that children make lasting associations based on Christmas iconography:
“Its Christmas time in Detroit, 1961. I was 3 years old and in the bank line with my Mom. There were 3 black men in front of us in line, talking and laughing amongst themselves. I had never seen, nor let alone been exposed, to people who didn’t look like me. All I had known is what was in picture books at home, and we had pictures of the dark skinned men who visited Jesus in the manger. Being an inquisitive little chatterbox and fairly smart, I asked these 3 fellows if this was who they were… What did I know? My Mom wanted to dive under a desk in embarrassment. Luckily for us, they laughed in what I hope now is amusement at the innocent question of a 3 year old toddler.”

There are some traditional reasons for the magi’s representation. In Europe, the three wise men often represent each of the continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia (being a primitive culture, Europe was unaware of the other four continents during the time of the tradition’s origins). Thus, in paintings and in live nativity scenes, at least one of the Magi is usually black--most often through the use of blackface.

But the biblical account describes the Magi as traveling from the east, not from the continent to the south and west of Bethlehem. And despite repeated requests to stop the use of blackface, the tradition continues. Indeed, in Germany some have observed that “this use of blackface is a missed opportunity to be truly inclusive of Afro-Germans in German-speaking communities and contributes to the equation of 'blackness' with 'foreignness' and 'otherness' in German culture.”

God sent God's Son into the world as poor, brown, member of an oppressed society. This is who we should identify with and celebrate. Rather than perpetuating exclusion and ‘otherization’ in our manger scenes, we could be celebrating the truly inclusive Body of Christ.

Do you have a nativity scene in your home? Who is represented in it? Who is missing? 


  1. Great post good information. I 1+ this on Google +

  2. They continue to want to use that black face and want to find an excuse to use it even though it's highly offensive.

  3. Interesting post, I was not aware of the blackface being used this way.

  4. I'm amazed how prolific it is:

  5. I live in Germany and it is so difficult as an American from the south to not have a come apart about it every single time it happens.

    It breaks my heart. People don't get it. If the Sternsinger in our area do this and I know about it, I plan on lodging a complaint to the church. There's no excuse in this day and age, especially for a missional work for children.

  6. Thanks for sharing your unique perspective, Jennifer!

  7. I bought a plastic nativity this year for my toddler to play with as she learns the story. Interestingly, one of the shepherds is the darkest-skinned, and not the 3 kings bearing gifts. It's based on the "Beginner's Bible" (a Zonderkids publication) characters. This illustrated bible shows multi racial groups of angels, most everyone has brown or black hair-- until Jacob, then Elisha, Rahab, Daniel & Nebuchadnezzar... Zacchhaeus and Paul, and some disciples... It's a cartoon, so I appreciate any sense of realism that they attempt. I think they include the blonde and reds to help differentiate characters?

  8. I collect nativity scenes from around the world, mostly from places I've lived or at least visited. One reason I started doing so was because the scenes most often depict all if the participants in the holy event as "locals" ie Mary wearing her Bolivian or Peruvian pollera and bowler hat, or spinning wool as she sits by the manger; the wise men playing charango and other local instruments, Joseph wearing his traditional clothing and his abarcas (sandals made from old tires). These scenes have sparked some interesting and important conversations with friends whatever country we have lived in, as the story of Jesus has been so thoroughly white-washed around the world. They also served as important identity reinforcements for our two mixed daughters (my husband is Bolivian) as we talked about Jesus most likely looking more like them than me (their obviously "gringa" mom).

  9. What a great way to start what I'm sure are some interesting conversations!


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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