A Mixed-Race Family Establishes New Traditions and Comforts [Essay]

Illustration by Hannah Agosta

Where’s the Black or brown Santa?” my husband, Brian, said from across the dinner table. We were discussing the plethora of opportunities to visit Santa Claus for our young daughters. I had suggested watching Santa Claus arrive at Mission Viejo City Hall perched atop a fire truck, riding a children’s train to the Santa at Irvine Park Railroad, or sitting before an elegant Kris Kringle as he regaled the children with stories next to a massive gingerbread village at Pelican Hill.

Brian’s question caught me by surprise. I took pride in my exhaustive research for family activities, but I hadn’t anticipated his request. Brian was challenging me to discard my preconceived notions and look at the world from his perspective as a Black man. He was inviting me to get #woke.

We are a multiracial family. Brian is African American, Native American, and Scottish. I am Persian and Italian. Our children are a beautiful mix of our cultures and phenotypes. Yet I am often reminded of my own white privilege. With my olive skin, I navigate Orange County unnoticed, especially in Persian communities such as Irvine. But Brian and our children are conspicuous. When we are together in public, I feel the eyes on us, and I sense my daughters’ vulnerability as inquisitive strangers invade their personal space. “What beautiful hair,” they say as they reach out to touch the girls’ curls as if they’re in a petting zoo.

I couldn’t leave Brian’s question unanswered. “Should we take them to L.A.?” I asked.

“I heard Ladera Heights has a Black Santa,” he said. “Or was it Crenshaw?”

“That’s too far. What about Long Beach?”

We looked at each other, dumbfounded.

Before we married, Brian lived in large metropolitan areas with a rich Black culture. We settled in Orange County to be close to my family. It wasn’t easy for Brian because only 2 percent of the population here is African American.

I remembered how a few years ago, as we strolled along the bluffs near Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, Brian nodded his head to a Black man with a light-skinned wife and a stroller, like us.

“Did you just give him the ‘brother nod?’ ”

“Yes.”

“Is that your secret code?” I teased.

“It says, I see you brotha. I feel you.”

My heart ached for Brian. As difficult as it was to be a Black man in Orange County, it was even more difficult to be a Black father without a supportive network. On the rare occasion when we saw another family that looked like ours, we were tempted to roll down the window and ask, “Where do you live? Where do you get your hair cut? Where do you get your soul food? Can we hang out?”

As the matriarch of a multiracial family, I vowed to be more active as their ally. Ten years ago, when my children were still in diapers, I discovered Multiracial Americans of Southern California (MASC), a nonprofit organization that celebrates and advocates for multiracial identity. I stalked the MASC website for events and playdates. Our first event was in honor of Loving Day, an annual celebration commemorating the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state laws banning interracial marriages. At a Polynesian restaurant in Cerritos, we participated in a hula-hoop contest and sang karaoke with all sorts of mixed families.

We had found our tribe. I became a MASC volunteer and begged them to host more events in Orange County. The MASC Board responded by inviting me to become the Parent Liaison creating playdates and parenting workshops for multiracial families in Southern California.

I thought about our family’s search to find community in Orange County as I mulled over Brian’s request. I set out our wooden nativity scene and remembered how our daughter portrayed baby Jesus in the church Christmas pageant. I was proud of her for breaking the gender barrier in her first role as an actor, but I suspected we made some of the parishioners uncomfortable for another reason. Gretchen, one of the pageant organizers, must have felt my hesitation. She pulled me aside backstage as I swaddled my daughter and in a breathless whisper said, “You know that this is more accurate, right? Jesus looked more like Brian than me,” pointing to her own milky skin. In that small gesture, she reassured me that we belonged in the pageant as much as anyone else.

Representation matters.

I turned to Brian as he hung a garland on the fireplace.

“We should bring a multicultural Santa to O.C.,” I said.

He stopped and looked up. I could see it in his eyes: I struck gold.

“You could make it a MASC meetup. We know lots of mixed families we could invite.”

But where to find Santa? Brian demurred. He didn’t see himself as the Santa type. We pitched ideas until we came upon Frank. Whenever we needed a favor, we turned to Frank, a dynamic, charming friend of Filipino descent. He was the emcee at our wedding, an honorary uncle to our kids, and a featured speaker on equestrian care for our Girl Scout troop. Frank didn’t hesitate to accept our invitation to portray a multicultural Santa. He had driven his own daughter to L.A. to see her first brown-skinned Santa 20 years ago and understood our plight. We teased him that he would need lots of pillows for his tall, slender frame and a wig to cover his salt-and-pepper hair.

We set up the Multicultural Santa event in a South Orange County park on a brisk December Saturday. Brian spent weeks in the garage designing a bench for Santa and creating a North Pole scene for the park gazebo. We promoted the event via MASC’s newsletter, social media, and old-fashioned flyers. We invited families to bring dishes that represented their own holiday cultural tradition such as latkes or panettone. Fifty people of various ethnicities and hues congregated under a gazebo with one objective, to give their kids a holiday memory they wished they had as children.

As Santa walked up to the gazebo, the air crackled with excitement, for the parents as much as the children. Brian proudly escorted Santa to his newly designed throne where Santa warmly welcomed the children. My girls snuggled next to Uncle Frank while the others formed a circle in front of him. Santa read stories about international Christmas traditions and posed for photos, taking time to connect with each child. The youngest children, the babies and toddlers, looked up at Frank and reached out to his face. There was something familiar about him, a reflection of themselves.

I looked around at our group under the gazebo and my heart felt full. I never lacked a helping hand in the setup, hosting, or cleanup. Parent after parent approached Brian and me to say how meaningful the event was to their family and to the community.

Four years later, we continue to host the popular event. Our school-age children join in the planning process choosing the decor, holiday songs, and stories for Santa to read. This year, we will host Multicultural Santa as a virtual event. While the holidays will be difficult for many families who won’t be able to celebrate together, I hope that we can bring them a little bit of joy with our newly formed family tradition: when our daughters sweetly and proudly introduce the younger children to Uncle Frank, their very own Multicultural Santa.

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