Decolonizing Christmas

Kelle J. Brown shares how her church uses a gold Christ candle instead of a white one. “Our need for [traditional symbols] should never outweigh our pursuit for inclusion,” she writes.

Photo by N Kamalov on Unsplash.

Two years ago, as an act of resistance, protest and radical inclusivity, I decided to switch the white Christ candle in my church’s Advent wreath for a gold candle. I went to a specialty store to find the candle, sure that I would not be able to locate one in the Christian bookstore. Thankfully, there were several golden luminaries available, so I chose one that would fit our candle holder.

The salesperson noted its beauty and said the golden pillar would be a beautiful accent in any home. Without thinking, I added, “This will be the Christ candle for Advent.”

The gold Christ candle on display at Plymouth Church in Seattle, Washington. Photo provided.

In response, she grew quiet, eventually asking why I didn’t purchase a white one.

Gently, I responded, “Because the historical Jesus wasn’t White, and the Christ candle should point toward justice.”

The salesperson didn’t voice any more questions that day, but I imagine she might have thought, “How can a candle point to justice? Isn’t it just a candle? Isn’t it just tradition?”

As an African American, woman pastor who leads in a predominantly White church, I have answers to these questions. A candle can point to justice because it acknowledges Jesus’ social location as a Brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew. By using a white candle as a representation of Jesus Christ, churches equate White skin with innocence and the standard of humanity. As a direct result, Black and Brown skin are seen as less worthy, less beautiful, less human than White skin.

The candle’s white color reinforces the centering of Whiteness through pictures, iconography and symbols used in worship.

Therefore, the simple act of following tradition and using a white Christ candle delays the conversations that the church must have to analyze our institution’s idolization of White, cisgender, heteronormative able-bodied men. The candle’s white color reinforces the centering of Whiteness through pictures, iconography and symbols used in worship. Without interrogating why many churches use white Christ candles, systems of domination remain intact, active in pervasive and destructive ways.

Further, a candle can point to justice as it honors Black, Brown, Asian and Indigenous people who have born the lie that Jesus was White. This longstanding myth is supported by artwork such as the “Head of Jesus” by Walter Sallman and other well-known depictions.

Painting by Warner Sallman, “Head of Christ,” © 1941 Warner Press Inc., Anderson, Indiana.

A candle can represent my cry for justice over the sin of pervasive anti-Blackness. In Advent, without fail, the dark becomes light’s foe. We point to passages like Isaiah 9 and John 1 to say that Christ conquered the dark. We fail to see that the Spirit moves in the darkness, and it is from the darkness that the Christ child is born. Those of us who embody darker bodies are assaulted continually by the mishandling of such a limited binary.

If we are to be about the business of creating the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about and the Bible speaks about, we must be open to scrutinizing our symbols alongside the lived testimonies of the impacted in our midst. There is nothing more pervasive than the things which remain unquestioned; nothing more harmful than assuming such symbols are innocuous.

My choice for the Christ candle is gold. Why gold? Gold is the color of the sun. Gold was one of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the wise ones from the East. The color is illuminating, rare, grounding, and its brilliance is known throughout history and our current existence for its preciousness and worth. Gold is the hue of the melanated skin of the people in the world from which Jesus hails.

Certainly, the Spirit may reveal the limits of gold another year. But, as the faithful, it is our work to acknowledge that symbols have lives and ranges of meaning. Our need for them should never outweigh our pursuit for inclusion and justice, and our love and nostalgia for what we’ve known cannot be stronger than the voices of those seeking hospitality and embrace.

But, as the faithful, it is our work to acknowledge that symbols have lives and ranges of meaning.

In other words, it behooves us to leave no symbol or representation unturned. Everything about who we are as Christian people and how we represent the sacred should be open to the Spirit of transformation — a flowing river of justice, which streams right down to the color of the Christ candle.

When I found the golden Christ candle in the store that day, I felt solidarity with my church and community, with all the saints who have no place in the inn, and with all those who might find their home in its glow. Seeing the dancing of the candle’s light stands as a beacon to remember that moment by moment, Jesus is born in the sacredness of a Spirit-infused community. May we move through this Advent with great intention, and into Christmas, allowing the Holy to speak through its flame liberation and love for all God’s people.