Roxanne Givens had a storybook childhood, with Christmas celebrations directed by her mother, Phebe, who could have been one of Santa’s elves.
Her mother started collecting diminutive Victorian villages decades ago and, with a collection of more than 150 little buildings and the help of her children, would each year craft elaborate displays of miniature holiday vignettes.
Roxanne wanted to pass on the tradition to her own children and did. But there was one major difference: Among the Christmas decorations that cheer nearly every room of Roxanne’s Las Vegas home, the Santa Clauses, angels, nativity scenes and cherubs mostly have identities like her own family, who are African-American.
Roxanne Givens started diversifying her collection in about the late ’90s. Until then, about the only dark face to appear in Christmas imagery was the wise man Balthazar, said to have been the king of Arabia. She was thinking about creating her own designs when she began to notice blown-glass ornaments by the high-end collectible company Christopher Radko that showed, as Givens says, “brown people.” Soon, she was looking for more.
“They’re hard to come by when you’re looking for something a little more diverse,” she said, but she felt strongly about branching out.
“I just think it would be an exciting moment if we could see ourselves in our decorations,” she said. “You go to the mall, and you see a mainstream Santa.” Givens, who lived in Minneapolis until about five years ago, remembers the widespread excitement when a Minneapolis shopping mall got its first African-American Santa.
“It’s so important,” she said. “It’s just eye-opening if you haven’t seen something like this.”
As her collection grew, she found a lot of kindred spirits.
“The more people who were exposed to it, the more there were who wanted it.”
At the time, Givens was a housing developer and property manager. Working with architects had sharpened her own design skills. Her mission eventually led to a business, the now-closed ethnichome.com, a design and decor site.
“With an ethnic twist,” Givens said, “whatever that would be,” including not only Afro-centric but also Asian and Latin cultural elements. Part of her business was helping a client — such as a bank — reflect the communities in which its facilities were located.
Along the way, she discovered that Kurt S. Adler had introduced multicultural designs. She also got a lot of samples, “and sometimes they were brown.”
There were some surprising finds such as the pillar candle with a relief of an African-American choir.
“Who would have ever thought we’d find Victorian brown folks?”
Some of them now populate her Victorian holiday village.
Always, she was meticulous in her choices, eschewing the cliche.
“It’s not just the brown face,” Givens said. “The images on these faces are quality. They are what I want to represent.”
The 2009 death of her older daughter, Brittany, destroyed Givens’ Christmas enthusiasm for some time. And she clearly misses sharing the tradition with her mother, who passed away a few years ago. But she has carried on.
“I feel a burst of joy,” she said, “because this is the second year I’ve done it.”
Givens’ show of Christmas spirit begins at the entry to her home.
“Wreaths are a welcoming element,” she said. “I like to start the design at the front door and carry it all the way through.”
The wreath on the door bears a brown-skinned angel. The Victorian village fills a long table in the living room, and an African-American nativity scene graces the family room. There are brown-skinned Santas on plates on the kitchen table, in the form of a cookie jar in the kitchen, and in figures around the house.
The centerpiece, though, is the Christmas tree in the living room, which is covered with ornaments, many of them Radko, some from her mother’s collection. But Givens points out that tree’s ornaments are culturally inclusive, with white-faced Santas and all manner of neutral characters such as Winnie the Pooh, Brittany’s favorite.
“Most of it relates to the family,” she said.
As she points out favorites, her enthusiasm reflects the proverbial child on Christmas morning.
“The fun, the pleasure,” she said, “comes from the desire to expose them to others.”