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African Americans Urged to Boycott Santa : Christmas: N.C. civil rights leader advises families not to go into debt buying presents this year, and finds himself cast as Scrooge. Uproar has only reinforced his opinion.


DURHAM, N.C. — A Baptist minister who urged blacks to boycott Santa Claus--because too many families go into debt buying presents--is surprised to find himself vilified as Scrooge.

"This is the time to start watching those dollars," said the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, who last month called for diminishing the role of old Saint Nicholas in their homes this Christmas.

Gatewood, president of the Durham chapter of the NAACP, was caught off guard by the response to "Operation: Boycott Santa Claus."

Editorials called him "Scrooge Gatewood" for "dissin' Santa Claus." Nationally, Rush Limbaugh railed against the boycott on his syndicated radio talk show and ABC News did a segment on it.

Gatewood responded by saying he's received expressions of support from whites and blacks across the country, even from England and Australia. A week after he announced the boycott, his chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People voted unanimously to support it.

The uproar has only reinforced Gatewood's view that blacks would be better off with less under the tree and more invested in such things as mutual funds to ensure their children can go to college.

"People are going to spend $300, $400 on Christmas presents even if their kids don't even have health insurance," he said. "Once Santa retreats to the North Pole, they're not going to have Santa Claus' permission to go to the doctor. They're going to ask for your insurance card."

If the spending bug is irresistible, buy from black retailers, he said.

"It's a cop-out to say that this is just a Grinch thing, trying to stop Christmas," said Gatewood, 36, who said he's getting his 4-year-old daughter savings bonds and books this year.

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People--the city's dominant civil rights group--has refused to take a stand on the boycott.

The state's retailers, however, are taking it seriously: The North Carolina Retail Merchants Assn. said it wouldn't be surprised to see a drop in Christmas sales in Durham, although it was too early to tell.

"Boycotting is perfectly legal," said Fran Preston, president-elect of the association, which represents 25,000 stores across the state. "We feel that everyone should get to celebrate Christmas whichever way they want to."

Black shoppers in Durham appeared split on the boycott.

"I'm not a fan of Santa Claus either," said Tenita Philyaw, who is in her late 20s. She added that Christmas "is not out here buying a GI Joe or out here buying Air Jordans. It's about giving to those who need it."

Others defended Santa as part of tradition.

"I have to admit that Christmas is getting too commercialized. But Santa has been around a long time," said Lita Walker, who took her 2-year-old son, Javaente, to see Santa at Durham's South Square Mall.

Gatewood isn't worried about the tally for and against his boycott.

"I'm not here to be validated by the media and everybody in the country," he said. "I think it's spiritually and morally right."

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