The Tacky Christmas Movie Universe Is As White As Santa’s Beard And That Needs To Change

christmas movie white diversity issues
Contributor: Emma Ruben

Nobody loves a Christmas movie more than I do. With their cosy coffee shop settings, characters holding mugs of hot cocoa or mulled cider, and dialogue that would make me cringe during any other season of the year, it’s just not Christmas if I don’t watch at least one shitty Christmas flick (looking at you Princess Switch 3). 

But as I’ve gotten older (and more cynical) it isn’t hard for me to spot the People of Colour in Christmas movies.

Because there are usually none.

As much as we all love re-watching the same Christmas films each year, they’ve become a reminder for me, a Malaysian-born lover of Christmas, of how “white” Christmas really is. 

Given that the foundation of many Christmas films is supposedly Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol, I’m not exactly surprised. It’s a genre overpopulated by white characters, white stories and white traditions.

But there’s a reason we’re drawn to the same Christmas films year in, year out. When I chatted to RMIT Lecturer in Cinema Studies, Dr Djoymi Baker, she told me that part of this is because we’re addicted to the comforting feeling of a happy ending.

“Although the industry likes to regularly renew its Christmas fare, there is also a ritualistic comfort in returning to the same old Christmas films year after year,” she said.

More so, our re-watching of Christmas movies comes from wanting to absorb ourselves in nostalgia. Dr Baker told me, “It’s a longing for the past but with the knowledge that the past cannot ever fully be recovered.”

I can understand wanting to feel nostalgic and a little melancholy during Christmas. Especially because COVID-19 travel restrictions are stopping so many people, including myself, from seeing family and friends. 

Hell, even I can’t help but binge-watch all three Santa Claus films (even the terribly shit third one) during the festive season. But it has only become more obvious to me, and other people of colour, that the only Christmas that exists in films is a Western one. 

Not only that but people of colour who are portrayed in classic Christmas films are not portrayed accurately, or very nicely. In A Christmas Story, not only is the film marketed as an “original, traditional, American Christmas” but its archaic portrayal of Chinese people has them cooking roast duck and singing Christmas songs in stereotypical accents.

Other Christmas movies are what LA film critic Carla Renata, when speaking to MSN, called “mostly all-white films, with a smattering of a Black person or a Latino person.” A bit like Peter, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, in Love Actually a harsh criticism for a holiday favourite, I know. 

There is some Christmas hope: in recent years there have been more Christmas flicks with diverse casts.

Last Christmas features Malaysian-British Henry Golding as the main character, Tom Webster and Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh. The Holiday Calendar includes a lineup of Black actors including Kat Graham and Quincy Brown. Even The Princess Switch, no matter how terrible it is, features characters played by Vanessa Hudgens who is of Filipina ancestry and Nick Sagar, a British actor of Jamaican and Guyanese heritage.

Although this is a start to seeing more diversity, Christmas movies would benefit not just from casting non-white actors but also by introducing more people of colour into producing, directing and writing roles. 

And this could mean that we actually start watching Christmas films that show how other cultures and people celebrate Christmas. Because it’s not just Europe that marks the 25th of December, plenty of other countries and cultures do, too.

I can only hope that in 10 to 20 years’ time, some of these films become classics we look back fondly on. Because if we’re going off the films we watch every year, it looks like people like me just don’t celebrate Christmas.

Emma Ruben is a freelance writer living and writing on Whadjuk Boodjar. She’s on Instagram and Twitter where she chats about reading, writing and other high-brow topics like reality TV.