Santa’s Not Real, But If He Were, He Wouldn’t Have To Be White
By Carol Hood
I decided that Santa was Black at that moment simply because he wanted to be, and I felt closer to Santa than ever before.
Back in December, 2013, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly caused a social firestorm when she declared without any doubt in her mind that Santa just is white, and Jesus is too, and it is just so so ridiculous for anyone to suggest otherwise! Now Kelly has cut off all her hair and become some sort of pseudo-feminist crusader against Donald Trump because he let her know that his privilege is totally better than her privilege and she wasn’t having that. Also, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., hired its first Black Santa — and oh my sweet Mary and Joseph, did white people lose their minds.
The backlash was marked by the usual unoriginal “OMG PC culture ruins everything!” drivel, and the classic, “It’s racist to make Santa not white because then you are making it about race” switch-up. Soon, the furor grew to calling Santa-elect Larry Jefferson (a VET, mind you) “feces in a Santa suit.” These model citizens even threatened a boycott to protest the very idea of anyone ever imagining Santa as anything but white. In fact, the reaction was so volatile that the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, who ran the original story, had to close their comments section. Upon reading all of this, I was amused/bemused/baffled/not-baffled — a familiar blend by now — by the absolute gall of White America and its self-centeredness. The white people losing their shit over Larry Jefferson didn’t even realize that throughout their idyllic be-white-Santa-ed childhoods, little Black children like me were often ushered into “secret” areas and back rooms to get our pictures taken with the “Special Santa.” The one I like to call the #JimCrowSanta. The Santa who looked like us.
I grew up with festive Christian parents, who decorated trees, sang Christmas carols, attended theater at the church, and of course went all in on the presents. We had our personal traditions: counting Christmas lights, watching It’s A Very Muppet Christmas Movie on December 23rd, and yes, fully buying into the magic of Santa. From December 1st until the 25th, my imagination ran wild with excitement, fantasizing about Santa in his workshop, toiling away at the lists filled with the names of countless children. I wrote Santa letters every year (which were always answered by my mother). I left Santa milk and cookies every other year (which were always eaten by my father). And my parents made sure that I always got to visit Santa, every holiday season.
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For the most part, like the Santa of the Star-Tribune commenters’ idyllically segregated childhoods, our Santa was white. But one Christmas season in Chicago, I believe I was five or six, my cousins and I got the #JimCrowSanta for the first time. We were at the Water Tower, waiting in line; I distinctly remember wearing these pink sparkly boots that I just had to get photographed. As I was practicing my poses, one of Santa’s helpers ushered out the line by one of Santa’s elves and taken into a smaller and more discreet area. All three of us were confused — we’d already seen Santa, he was the other way! But they took us through a door and another door and lo and behold, there was another Santa. He sat there grinning, arms wide: HO! HO! HO! I practically fell to the ground trying to beat my cousins to his lap. I could not wait to tell him what I wanted for Christmas (A PUPPY!) and show off my cool sparkly boots. I remember sitting on his lap first, and then seeing his rich brown skin.
Did this somehow ruin my childhood? Hell no. My personal vision of Santa’s powers only blossomed. I decided that Santa was Black at that moment simply because he wanted to be, and I felt closer to Santa than ever before. I rediscovered a pride in my appearance that had already begun to slip away. It was as if the most important man on earth (besides Daddy) was acknowledging me, and I carry that pride and happiness until this very day.
The Jim Crow-ness of it all has long shadowed this otherwise happy memory. But the cruelty of celebrating a white Santa Claus while quietly taking Black children to the Black Santa In The Basement never truly hit me until I witnessed the extent of white possessiveness when it came to Mall of America’s choice.
In general, Americans who celebrate Christmas can trace their Santa entitlement to Finnish-American artist Haddon Hubbard Sundblom and other marketing minds behind Coca-Cola’s wildly successful 1920s holiday print ads. Sundblom’s image seeped into the American spirit, and soon became so ubiquitous that I remember standing at a holiday parade in Europe and practically blowing a mind-gasket when the last float passed by featuring a staunch, moody, and (gasp) skinny Saint Nick. I remember spitting out my hot chocolate, rather obnoxiously exclaiming, “Santa Claus is supposed to be fat!”
At this point, the “Let’s Get All The Facts First” racist would probably interject that the European version of Santa is probably more historically accurate, even if Americans think he’s too thin, as the myth of Santa Claus (St. Nicholas, elided to Sinterklaas) mostly comes from Germanic folklore. Oh okay, we’re playing the “historical accuracy” game about the magic presents man with the flying reindeer? How about this: ol’ St. Nicholas himself was a Turkish man — born in Demre, Turkey — with Greek nationality, meaning that he, at very least, was an ethnic man who could pass for white. How you like them very brown apples?
Putting aside history, though, Santa Claus became more myth than man a long, long time ago. He’s immortal. He employs elves. He flies all over the world, not by plane but by flying sleigh, delivering presents to the children in a matter of hours. He’s incredibly body-positive. He has to be six feet something and 300 pounds, but maintains Olympic-level athleticism, able to hop from chimney to chimney and leave presents under the tree with no trace he’d ever been there. Why is it so hard to imagine that maybe Santa switches his ethnicity from time to time because why the hell not?
There’s nothing wrong with white Santa. Santa can be white, too. But if Santa is white and only white then the inclusion of other religions and customs is even more imperative. Give room and space to learn and appreciate other customs with their own happy myths that acknowledge their own histories. That isn’t a “war on Christmas” — that’s being a decent and learned human being. One who has not actively murdered the creativity, imagination, and ultimately intelligence of their children — and subsequently themselves — for the sake of white supremacy.