I was last home with my family during the holiday season five Christmases ago. I have spent this December between my two homes, Kenya and India. This got me remembering all the Christmases I have had in these countries, including the one where I was an awkward Santa Claus.
I must have been around seven. We (the Deanes) spent that Christmas with my aunt and her family when we lived in Mumbai. Food, music, and family; all was festive and fun. Then, it came to present-opening time, and I was stoked. By then, I had accepted that someone had to put on a Santa costume and pass around presents on Christmas, because it just wasn’t practical for Santa to make an appearance at everyone’s gift-distribution sessions. What I hadn’t anticipated was being asked to step into his shoes for the occasion.
My aunt came up to me and asked me to be Santa Claus. She told me it would be fun, and she makes everything fun, so I took the fake cotton beard, and red clothes she handed me. But then I had my doubts. I put on the costume, thinking “no one is going to buy this”. I was seven, a girl, beardless, and Indian. I was not a large, old white man named Nick. Everything was working against me. But, I did it, because someone had to do it, or no one would get presents. It ended up being quite a laugh playing Santa, and my family enjoyed seeing the little one in costume, but I did feel like a fraud. I kept thinking, “you know it’s me, and I don’t even look convincing”.
Now, I understand that moment a bit better. I had this idea that Christmas was only really Christmas if it looked like it did on American TV. My family are Christian, and have been celebrating Christmas for generations, but it still felt to me like we were not the real deal because we did not fit the image. I had many questions as a child, trying to understand being part of a minority culture seen by many I interacted with as being closer connected to the “West” than India. Were we believable? Church looked like churches from around the world, but did we fit the image? What about Church services in different Indian languages… were they considered authentic enough? Could you really wear Indian outfits to Church? Why am I called ‘Anglican’, and not ‘Catholic’ like the people I go to school with?
Being asked these questions in India, and the other countries I’ve lived in did play a role in solidifying my identity awkwardness. But, because I was asked, I looked for answers, and I understand all of this better as an adult. I now know Christmas can look different everywhere, and that the rotund man from the North Pole can be played by anyone, and is, in fact, optional.