COMMENTARY: Sorry, Megyn: Santa is an American adaptation

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News Saints, Feasts, and Seasons

c. 2013 Religion News Service

(RNS) A couple of nights ago, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly took on a mildly satiric column in Slate in which Aisha Harris wrote that the common portrayal of Santa Claus as a white man excludes children who don’t happen to be white.

Before getting slightly serious, Kelly put on her “mom” hat to talk to whatever children might be watching Fox News at that hour:

“All you kids at home: Santa just is white. But this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa. But Santa is what he is. Just so you know, we’re debating this because someone wrote about it, kids. OK. I wanted to get that straight.”

Given the likelihood of a kid of color watching her at that moment (lottery ticket odds against, I’d say), no damage done. But then she goes on.

“Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too. He’s a historical figure. That’s a verifiable fact. As is Santa. I just want you kids watching to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story and just change Santa from white to black?”

How many problems are wrapped up in that? Start with the most obvious:

First, Santa is a splendid figure of imagination. Therefore, arguing that he has to be one color is like insisting that unicorns can only be one color or that leprechauns are only allowed to wear one brand of skivvies. Or like setting a limit for how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Beyond that, what does it mean to say that Santa and Jesus are “white”? In today’s multiracial America, the claim sounds as anachronistic as the definition of an octoroon (a person of one-eighth black ancestry). But let’s play along:

The image of Santa is anything but eternal. And it’s been revised any number of times. The original character may well have been real: Legends grew up over the centuries about a Bishop Nicholas of Myra, a town on the southeast coast of what is now Turkey. Was the fourth-century bishop a fat, rosy-cheeked man in a fur-lined red suit?

Nope. He was likely to have had an olive complexion, given the population. And a dark tan, given the climate. And while winter in Myra will dip into the 30s, he wouldn’t have had much use for the heavy snow garb.

St. Nicholas eventually morphs into Santa Claus. But that’s almost certainly an American invention from the 1800s. The famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) starts to nail down our image:

“He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot. … His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow. And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow. … He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.”

What color is his outfit? Some of the early drawings had it in black and white. Or even a patriotic American stars-and-stripes motif.

These days, our mental picture likely owes more to Coca-Cola ads that started in the 1930s than to any earlier illustrations.

Coke even has a Web page explaining the history of Santa’s look: “In fact, many people are surprised to learn that prior to 1931, Santa was depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to a spooky-looking elf. He has donned a bishop’s robe and a Norse huntsman’s animal skin.”

So taking Kelly seriously, what’s essential about our current image of Santa? Here’s a thought experiment to isolate what really matters:

Start by imagining the full Coke version: Big fat guy with the full white beard in the red-and-white suit. Shave off the whiskers. Not Santa. Put him in street clothes and you get the funny Chevy ads where the humor is wondering if the portly car salesman with the long white beard is a moonlighting elf. Or not.

Now leave everything else the same but imagine his skin is any hue of the human rainbow. Would anybody not recognize him as Santa Claus? Other than Kelly?

As for Jesus. Well, we can be pretty sure that no first-century Jewish man born in Bethlehem was as white as Kelly. Or as Jim Caviezel, for that matter. Much more likely he looked something like Yasser Arafat. Or the bearded Osama bin Laden. Were they “white men?” I leave that discussion to the racial purists.

As for Santa’s essential nature, there has never been a better description than the one written by Francis Pharcellus Church in that most-famous editorial in the New York Sun of Sept. 21, 1897:

“He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

There’s no mention of color.