Skin-colored Felt: Doing Other People’s Cultures Wrong

Cloth doll angel waiting for wings and Joseph with black mustache, beard and wild yarn hair, corduroy palm tree with green felt leaves.
Angel awaits wings, halo and hair. Rastafarian Joseph leans against corduroy palm tree. ©Laurel Decher, 2015

Skin-colored felt is not easy to find, even if you know what color you’re looking for. My youngest and I are sewing figures for a Christmas nativity scene. So far, we’ve made the palm tree (brown corduroy).

Glue overdose means the only original figures are the baby Jesus and the Rastafarian Joseph, named for his wild, black, locks. He tends to tip over easily. The palm tree helps prop him up until we can give him a navy bean transfusion.

Skin-colored felt must have been equally challenging a decade or so ago, when my Mom made him. Joseph’s face is tweedy-beige knit. Hence the search for skin-colored felt, preferably “multicultural.”

A kindergarten teacher (of course!) told me where to find felt in all colors. The colors I took weren’t labelled.

Elementary school kids seem to craft their own names for colors. I remember a lot of “blue-ish, greenish.” Maybe kids know something about color that we don’t.

Two friendly sheets of warm, beige-ish, brownish felt went into my basket.

While I was at the store, I looked for Chanukah candles and a menorah. I wanted to light candles in solidarity with a dear friend who was celebrating alone for the first time. There were all kinds of holiday decorations and candles there, so it seemed a reasonable quest.

The first woman I asked gave me a startlingly blank look and I wondered if my German skills were at fault. At the service desk, I asked again, just to regain my faith in humanity. They had never heard of the Jewish festival of lights. Grief for my friend put a sudden pain in my shoulder.

Don’t leap to conclusions, I told myself. I might be using the wrong words or using the right words in an unexpected way. Knowing each others’ holidays isn’t the only key to cultural understanding. Chanukah is not the most important Jewish holiday, just the one nearest Christmas. Twenty years ago, I learned the words to Shalom Chaverim in Germany.

I know, from personal experience, that German people grieve over the Holocaust and their country’s part in it. The Auschwitz museum was created to help people remember and prevent the horrors from happening ever again. Many, many German students had told me about the guilt they felt that the Holocaust had happened in their country.

I said, “But evil can happen anywhere, why do you feel guilty for things that happened before you were born?”

My friends said the tragedy could have happened anywhere, but the way it happened was particularly German. If my generation had grieved half so thoughtfully about the history of slavery in the U.S., would we be in a better place now?

Much to my relief, the cashier had heard of Chanukah. (She wasn’t Jewish.) I asked if she knew where to get a menorah, but hers was from Israel, a gift from a friend. She drew a quick sketch of it on paper to show she understood. It comforted me to know someone knew what I was talking about. Grief is a mysterious thing.

It’s really easy to do other peoples’ cultures wrong. I’m likely to light my Chanukah candles wrong even though I want to honor my friend. Wikipedia tells me Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are the most important Islamic holidays.

Next time I meet some new arrivals at the library or elsewhere, I’m going to ask what their high holidays are and how they celebrate them. If they celebrate Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, maybe they will teach me how to pronounce them. It might take me a while to get the hang of the unfamiliar names. Or they may celebrate holidays that are more familiar to me in a new way.

In the meantime, I’ll give my angel hands and a face in the new beige-ish, brownish felt and put my Chanukah lights in the window. Both are imperfect works of love.

Wishing you joyous and peaceful celebrations with people you love!

 

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Laurel Decher

LAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include "Stretchy the Leech" and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She's famous for a nonexistent sense of direction, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. When she's not lost, she can be found on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She's still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! :) Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in _Windhover_. Photo: © Jane Joo Park, 2017.

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