'Santa's Husband' twists the evolving tradition of who and what Santa Claus represents. Its creator tells us what he's learned from the furor that's followed.
Santa (left) and his husband kiss over cookies in an illustration from Santa's Husband. All illustrations by A.P. Quach
It all started last Christmas. The Mall of America had hired a black Santa Claus, and the internet was having a meltdown. In response, humor writer Daniel Kibblesmith tweeted that when he and his wife have children, he'll tell them that Santa is black and when they see a white Santa, that he is Santa's husband.
"We would have this extremely woke baby who was open to a Santa Claus with all kinds of orientations," Kibblesmith told me, half joking.
The Harper Collins-published children's book comes out Tuesday, and though it started as satire, the result is a genuinely sweet story that depicts a sound, joyful marriage—a particularly valuable sight, given the dearth of adult relationships, queer or not, shown in children's books.
But of course, Kibblesmith and Quach have faced a lot of trolling for their status quo-challenging art; Kibblesmith says he even found his picture on a white supremacist's blog trying to "out" him as Jewish. VICE spoke with Kibblesmith about the various politically-minded themes he and Quach sneaked into their innocuous-enough children's book, and what he's learned from the troubling and all-too-predictable online reaction to Santa's Husband.
VICE: In the book, you touch on other political themes, like unionizing. Is this a children's book that's really for adults?
Daniel Kibblesmith: We see it as an all ages book; in stores it will be in the humor section. But our goal was to write something that any kind of family could theoretically enjoy at Christmas time, on any level. Maybe you're a childless couple who has these politics and thinks the book is charming and funny; maybe you're a new parent who wants to introduce a different kind of holiday tradition into your home, or just reinforce the idea that traditions like these are malleable, living things that every family interprets differently.
Our politics are obvious from the title—you know exactly what you're getting into. But we thought of them more as little side jokes, not like a hit-you-over-the-head message. Also, in a world where Santa is in an interracial gay couple, those people might see the world the way that Quach and I see it, and we wanted to have jokes that reflected our philosophies.
The politics are obvious, to be sure, but still, the importance of this kind of representation in children's books is worth reiterating.
Although Christmas traditions are repetitive every year, or appear very repetitive, they've in fact evolved over time to become this quintessentially weird, American mishmash of things that were added over the years—like Rudolph in the 1930s, and Elf on the Shelf within the last decade. They all seem like they've been there forever, but people have been tweaking and tweaking, and this is, we hope, the same thing. It just tweaks it in a way that allows people who are celebrating our traditional American Christmas to see themselves—or to see something different.
There's a page in the book that focuses on the many iterations of "Santa" we've seen over the years, which seems helpful because you're addressing those detractors off the bat, but not in a defensive tone.
In a lot of ways this book is just like any child's first Santa Claus book, the same way that 'Twas the Night Before Christmas contains basically everything you need to know to participate in "Santa Claus." To do that, we had to acknowledge the same thing that the original Twitter joke did: that if this is Santa Claus, the explanation of the potential conflict between many other interpretations needed to be present.
Watch VICE report on the children raised without gender:
What are some of the best responses you've seen online?
It's been this really interesting microcosm of the internet as a whole. Let me put this a different way: people who are angry about it tend to be anonymous, and people who are excited about it tend to want to talk to us in a really intimate way on social media with their names, their faces and their biographies.
My favorite comment was in March, when Time ran an article that said, basically, "A new book is going to portray Santa Claus as being gay and in an interracial relationship," and one of the first comments underneath the article was, "Stop rewriting history." That really spoke to me, because—of course—our official policy is that Santa Claus is real, he is black, he is married to a man and he lives at the North Pole. (Wink, wink.) But certainly some could argue that the legend of Santa Claus is best described as a legend, and we're not actually rewriting history as much as interpreting a story.
There have been a lot of knee-jerk responses from people who object to it politically or philosophically. They make a lot of really obvious jokes about, "What's next? A trans, Muslim Easter Bunny?" My usual reaction is like, "Maybe. Sure!"
What have been some of the worst responses? Have you gotten death threats, like women often face when they write or talk about things like this?
I think the degree of trolling that you're describing tends to happen to, say, my wife or my female friends more than it happens to me. For that, I'm very, very lucky, which is kind of one of the themes of the whole book. I am a lucky person who was interested in doing something that people who are not in my position might hopefully appreciate, and haven't gotten to see, yet. The scary stuff for me has been a lot of anti-Semitism.
What do you think these responses—both the bad and the good—say about our culture today?
The most memorable comment we've gotten was from an audio blog on YouTube—this pseudo-podcast culture that exists there. Usually these accounts are just regurgitating news or being outraged politically, but we found a bunch of them talking about Santa's Husband. Under one there was a comment that said—and this is in its own YouTube-specific language—"Let things be stay the way they are."
Now, this has become something that my wife and I have started quoting sarcastically, because we think that the objection obviously can come from a lot of different places—like a place of racial division, or it can come from a place of homophobia, or just mild discomfort—but I honestly think that most of the objections just come from the general uneasiness of change. I think when people get angry or uncomfortable, there's always this base layer of fear, of change. They just want to "let things be stay the way they are." Of course, I disagree with their reaction, but also, part of me wants to comfort them.
One book is not going to make Santa Claus be black on billboards, or kiss a man in commercials. Maybe 30 years from now there will be different interpretations of these icons in media, but the amount of fear that they suddenly have does not seem proportionate to this one book that they can completely ignore if they so chose.
Interview has been condensed and editedFollow Valentina Valentini on Twitter.