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Confederate Christmas ornaments are smaller than statues – but they send the same racist message
Shortly before Christmas, many families undertake a well-known ritual: an annual stay in the attic, in the basement or in the closet to pull out a box with valuable ornaments that have been bought, made and collected over years, even generations. Hanging these ornaments on the tree is an opportunity to reconnect with memories of personal milestones, vacation symbols and, in many cases, destinations visited. But I contend it might be time to take some of those old travel souvenirs from the tree. In researching my 2019 book Confederate Exceptionalism, I examined places across the American South whose history is linked to enslaved labor. Seemingly charming souvenirs are sold to commemorate many of these places – from the Confederacy White House in Richmond, Virginia to Stone Mountain, a Georgia cliff adorned with images of Confederate generals. Christmas decorations are one of them. And while these mementos may seem apolitical, their dissemination enables Confederate myths and symbols to become “normal” features of people’s daily lives. My research suggests that in doing so, they can desensitize Americans to the destructive nature of such stories and icons. Contesting Confederate Symbols There has been heated discussion in the United States in recent years about public symbols reminiscent of the Confederacy, centered on the Confederate flag and statues of the Confederate generals. Activist Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole outside the state capital to remove the Confederate flag waving there after the 2015 deadly massacre of nine black people gathered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After Newsome’s civil resistance, then-President Barack Obama called the Confederate flag a “reminder of systemic oppression and racist submission”. But some in the US and even abroad still see the flag as a symbol of “heritage over hatred”. Statues of Confederate generals covering court lawns and public spaces in the United States have sparked similar controversy. In 2017, plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee sparked violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist killed activist counter-protester Heather Heyer in the Unite the Right rally. This tragedy spurred more cities and colleges to remove, or relocate, Confederate statues that are viewed as offensive. Nationwide debates followed about how best to deal with this chapter of American history. Consuming the Confederation Beyond the scope of these national discussions, my research into Confederate myths and memorabilia has found many unchecked Confederate symbols found their way into people’s kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms. Take “Confederate cookbooks” that help modern chefs recreate the recipes of the Old South and the stuffed animals based on, for example, Little Sorrel, the taxidermy warhorse of the Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, when baking an apple pie or buying a cuddly toy for the child . You are not meant to. But they still participate in this story and its mythologies. In this way, apparently apolitical objects such as cookbooks, toys and Christmas decorations, reminiscent of Confederate history, serve to normalize the objects, rituals and stories surrounding the Confederation – instead of problematizing them. More Than A Memento As a result, tree ornaments depicting the Confederation White House, a house of General Robert E. Lee, or the Stone Mountain carvings are not just mementos of a leisurely visit. These places and people are also icons of the Lost Cause, an ideology that romanticizes the Confederation by portraying the American Civil War as a struggle for the rights of states rather than a struggle to maintain slavery. The lost cause is still taught in some schools in the South, showing that the remains of the Confederation are powerful and lasting. Like Confederate statues and flags, Confederate Christmas ornaments reinforce this myth that the Confederation – a unit built on white supremacy – was about southern “heritage”. What appears to be a nostalgic travel memory is indeed deeply wrapped up in a complex matrix of memory, history, and racism in the United States. It’s just packaged in a seemingly harmless way. Christmas decorations convey something about the person or family they are showing. They reveal their history, passions and aesthetic tastes. So think about whether your Christmas tree represents your values. Does a Stone Mountain souvenir really belong between an ornament made in a kindergarten classroom and a glass nutcracker given by your grandmother? [ Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter. ]This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. Read more: * The harsh realities of slave life are obliterated on Christmas tours of southern plantations. * This Christmas tell your kids the real Santa story. * The science of gift wrapping explains why sloppy is better. Nicole Maurantonio does not work for, advise, owns or have any funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.